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“Why the baby cried” and other stories of time and tense - By Barney Angliss

The other day, travelling alone on a train, I watched a gorgeous little child chatting in her buggy while clutching a doll... You might wonder, was she clutching the doll or was I? I made my opening sentence confusing by:

a) placing the word “while” carelessly, and

b) omitting a personal pronoun such as “she” or “I” to make the meaning clear.

Read it again! Would it have been better to write, “while clutching her doll”? Yes, of course - unless it would lead you to think that I took her doll and held it, which I very rarely do even on the longest train journeys.

When her parent was ready to lift her from the buggy, she flung her arms up to help. Children are so helpful and therefore her parent probably didn’t mind bending down to pick up the doll which had fallen to the floor in the process. I remember, at the same age, being carried by my parents and telling them that, to make their load lighter, I would carry my teddy so they didn’t need to…

The fact is that small children have ideas floating in their minds like loosely placed words in a sentence. One comes along and another one loses its place; one begins before the other has ended; one makes sense but not alongside another. The first joke I told, at the age of three, was “What did the spider say? Eight legs!”

One reason for this spontaneity is that very young children are not comfortable with contingency, the possibility that something may happen without it being certain to happen: for example, the adult may be happy to wait for me to put the doll down safely before I offer my arms to be lifted out of this buggy – but, what the hell! Let’s just go for the lift-up before they change their mind!

As an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, contingency is still my least favourite thing. Please tell me what is going to happen or, to avoid the very painful uncertainty of “Let’s see…”, I will just do something to force a known outcome and remove the horrible feeling of unpredictability, whether or not the ‘known outcome’ is in my interest. You might like to consider such forceful, pre-emptive behaviour (some call it ‘knee-jerking’, others call it ‘controlling’) in the context of a classroom, where both children and adults do these things.

Another reason why the little girl may have flung up her arms with such disregard for the doll is the problem of telicity, which needs some explaining. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, which we would pronounce as “telos”. It means "end", “purpose” or "goal". In linguistics, telicity is the way a verb or verb-phrase (which, children are often told, means a “doing” word) presents an action or event as being complete in some sense. Young children find it difficult to judge how long a condition (such as running water or outstretched arms) will continue. It also takes them quite a long time to learn how to express completeness when they are telling something that happened because it requires the verb to be changed. For example, “I drinked it.” is wrong, whereas “I drank it.” is correct; likewise, “I saw” rather than “I seed”. Because there is this extra knowledge involved, it’s difficult to tell from children’s speech whether they are confused about an event (eg. are they unsure if it’s finished, or not even started?) or they’re simply having difficulty selecting the correct tense. The way our words change according to their context (such as changing “drink” to “drank”) is morphology and it’s one of the most complex verbal skills children learn. Unfortunately, adults – even professionals – often form assumptions about children’s learning ability from their difficulty with morphology; and sometimes peers do the same. It can lead to teasing and stereotyping.

To make some sense out of all this, let’s take a simple example: “I cut my finger.” Your listener will acknowledge that these things happen and can be painful but will have no fear that you might still be cutting your finger as you speak. This is because, unless clearly specified otherwise, “cut” is a telic verb; that’s to say, it expresses a complete or finite action – you cut it, it’s done.

Now let’s take a different example: “The baby cried five times last night.” The word, “cried” suggests that the crying was finite, complete. But that is not the meaning of the sentence. The verb “cry” is atelic, meaning it has no definite duration. No one knows what counts as one event of crying. When I cry, it will typically last 20 seconds, two tears each side; but I know people who cry for hours. In any case, the length of the crying event is no measure AT ALL of the length of the emotion event to which crying is a response. Most people would not interpret “cried five times” as complete and separate events, either. They would interpret from this data that the baby was unsettled through the night and was generally uncomfortable for whatever reason. Feeling compassionate, they might also assume that the parent(s) had an equally miserable time… It’s odd to think that our humane and empathic responses are so conditioned by certain rules of grammar, constructed on principles of contingency, telicity and morphology.

Recently, at Tate Modern, I watched a video made by Erkan Özgen of a deaf Syrian boy who had witnessed a massacre in his own village and who, unable to describe it in words, unable to hear what the attackers had said, simply re-enacted what he saw in every visceral detail, yanking his hand across his throat. Humanity needs no grammar. Suffering is atelic, ongoing, even if the verb “to cut” is finite.

But having language enables us to communicate more easily and to make ourselves and others safer. Having language improves our prospects, makes travel easier, widens our potential circle of friends and carers. So it’s right that we should offer speech and language therapy quickly and effectively, not contingent on certain legal and administrative criteria, but simply on the child’s need to communicate because communication is a right… is a right… is a right.

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