Saturday, August 16, 2008

Speak properly, please!

The head waiter at our coffee shop seemed friendly enough as she squatted over Sonny, but then she said: "Chak! He's cute. Chak!"

What in the name of tarnation is "Chak?"

Apparently, it's one of those nonsense-words that people like to utter in the presence of babies - meaning, more or less, "Hi, I'm friendly, why don't you smile at me?" - under the misguided impression that:
a) Babies are wired in a way that allows them to understand gibberish
b) Certain nonsense-sounds sound especially engaging to babies
c) One of society's unspoken conventions is that we should never speak to babies in grammatical sentences, with words drawn from natural languages.

It's all hooey, of course, but there seems to be some grain of truth to (c). We've had friends, relatives and complete strangers (not to mention coffee shop waiters) mysteriously switch to nonsense-speech when they encounter Sonny. We've no quarrel with the suggestion that speaking brightly and cheerily, with lots of animated facial expressions, is likely to better hold a baby's attention. But why that should be tied in to "Chak", or "Dada googoo" or "Burble burble" is beyond us.

This is actually one of Pa's pet peeves. He insists on issuing commands to Sonny in proper English and, generally, strung-together sentences. He figures that at some level, the groundwork is already being laid for the linguistic development of our son, and that it's never to early to establish good speech practices. Interestingly, Sonny seems to enjoy listening to Pa babbling about sports, or elections or adventures at work. Mum, who is also under instruction to eschew anything but grammatical English (or Chinese, or Malay, for that matter), isn't deviating from the party line either. Whether the result is a baby with astounding language skills is something that we'll not know for years. Maybe he'll be emotionally stunted from being deprived of the comforting wash of nonsense-talk.

Anyway, here's Pa's theory for why people unaccountably go the gibberish route when they come across babies: Their earliest experiences as infants resurface, and of course, back when they were tots, their elders were also "Chak"-ing and "dada googoo"-ing at them too. But that's a historical loop that extends back generations upon generations to the very earliest humans, back when there was no language to speak of and had to be slowly developed. So in those primitive days of human pre-history, communication was by grunts, facial expressions and social trial-and-error. And even as we've evolved and become fans of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Li Bai, little-baby-gibberish has been retained as a throwback to our primaeval beginnings.

Fanciful? Better ridiculous than nonsensical!