Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

The words children invent reveal the gaps in our own.

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Ida Luna

I am not a linguist (or a neuroscientist, psychologist, anthropologist, etc.), but I believe parenting grants us a beautiful window into linguistics and brain development and so many areas of study and understanding, and I love to mark what I’m learning. This is one of my absolutely favorite things about parenting: it is inherently inter-disciplinary, and it is so rich with opportunities to observe how the individual develops within and responds to all levels of the social ecology.


I’ve loved watching how my daughter Ida Luna’s understanding of time unravels, develops. Time is so hard to grasp for adults, the topic of so many books of philosophy. It’s no wonder it takes a long time both for children’s comprehension of it and their language for describing it to develop.

There was the period where everything in the past was “yesterday” and then when it was all “last night.” I would usually respond with something like, “Yes, I remember that! That happened last week” or “Yes, that was a few weeks ago.” Of course, faced with all these many linguistic options (last____, a few_____s ago, on [day of the week], etc.), Ida had to come up with some shorthand, because she doesn’t have the running calendar in her head to know the precise day or week or month at all times, and our language requires it. So, a few months ago, Ida invented a word to make up for this gap in our language where we have no vague reference to the recent past: “lasterday.”

It’s noteworthy, because it serves two purposes: similar to the expedient way many people in traditionally Yup’ik and Iñupiaq-speaking villages in Western and Northern Alaska use “always” and “never” in place of the complicated selection of words like “does,” “did,” “will,” etc. and “doesn’t,” “didn’t,” “won’t,” etc., Ida’s “lasterday” simplifies the process of fumbling around for the right word. But it also creates a word that, in her mind, fits perfectly to her memory: it was in the recent past, and of course she doesn’t know exactly when. (Most adults don’t know exactly when many recent memories occurred.)


Her most recent invention was another response to my attempts to shape the accuracy of her language. She had picked up somewhere this concept of people being “twinsies” or “twins” when they dressed the same. On Wednesday, she realized that she was wearing leggings and I was wearing leggings, and so, she exclaimed, “We’re twins!” I pointed out that her toddler brother, Rio, was also wearing leggings, which I guess would make us triplets. After saying that, I realized I should probably teach her a more accurate language for describing similarities, so I shared with her that our pants are similar, that this is something similar between us, that this is a similarity we share, that it’s something we have in common. (The language is awkward, right? So many options for how to say it. I think I landed on “similarity” as the word to stress, because the noun seemed easier.) She then pointed out, at dinner, that my sister and I both had earrings, which was…”What was it? Similarity?” I pointed out that my sister and her husband both wore plaid, which was a similarity.

The next morning, she and Rio were both wearing overalls, and she said, “See? Rio and I are similarians!” She then found something else that she and I had in common, and noted that we, too, were “similarians.” Ida had decided that trying to say that we have similar _____ or have a similarity was too awkward, and perhaps she wanted to return to the concept of us as people, as “twins,” us as people being united in some way rather than focus the language on the actual thing uniting us (the pants, the shirt, etc.) To say we have similar shirts is, indeed, much less uniting than to have a name for the way in which we are united in our similarity. It makes perfect sense that, again, both for efficiency but also for meaning, she would invent this word “similarian.”

If I want to get real deep here, I wonder if she recognizes, as many languages and cultures outside of the English language and Anglo culture recognize, the relational power of words that place two or more people — even people who may not closely know one another — in connection  — like “paisano” or “paisa” for short and “compañero” or “compa” for short in Spanish, or  “comrade,” or “age mates,” which I just read about in Zadie Smith’s book Swing Time as existing in the Benin/Guineau-Bissau/Senegal area. We have some in English, like classmate or housemate, and I believe non-dominant/non-Anglo cultures in the United States have many more such words to denote relation. It makes sense for Ida to want more of this. As a child, attachment and connection and safety within family is her #1 priority, and so if language can be shaped to comment on and increase this, how positive for her.

I am so grateful for these opportunities to observe with my children. I can’t wait to see what Rio comes up with.

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October 29th, 2017 at 8:38 am

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