Witnessing our son take words and make them his own has been one of the joys of parenthood
As a writer and editor, Danny Denton lives and breathes words, but as a parent of a young child, he’s come to look at language with a whole new perspective... and sense of awe.
I’m one of those types – those ones – who became a parent recently and immediately started banging on about how their world has tilted on its axis, how they’re “seeing the world in a new light”, as if the whole course of existence has refreshed itself in wondrous ways and blah, blah, blah – you get the idea. (But it’s true – it has!) Of course, I’m the same person (probably), seeing most things the same way, but being a writer and a dad at the same time, watching this child develop language has been an astounding two-year journey.
I’m still a little too sleep-addled to do the full research, but our brains have little cogs in them called “mirror neurons” and their job is learning through copying and repetition. The child mirrors the actions of those around them, and learns by doing the same things they see. So from day one, more or less, baby is mimicking movements and, soon after, sounds. New parents talk about the joy of first smiles, and I’ve no argument there, but first deliberate sounds too are a wonder to behold. In our house, it was agoo, and then, completely different, aboo.
I’m not sure who said it first – whether it was my partner Rachel or myself mimicking a sound that our son Luan made, or Luan repeating some cooing we were going on with – but once we were mimicking each other’s utterances to a pattern (agoo! agooooo! agggoooo! aboo!), we were giving meaning to that utterance. Repetition with intent begat meaning, and within hours of its first utterance, the sounds agoo and aboo were being used to communicate, to express something.
It was a game first: Dada: Agoo! Luan: Agoo. Dada: Aboo! Luan: Aboo.
But it was soon a question: Dada: Agoo? (i.e., Ça va?) Luan: Agoo. (i.e., Ça va bien!)
And within a day or so, Luan could use it to say hello, to demand attention, to vent frustration, and so on. Then we heard Luan’s first actual word – “key” – said suddenly and assuredly as one of us produced the keys to unlock the front door (joy!). “Mama” and “Dada” weren’t long after. But nothing gave me as much joy as agoo, used with such curiosity that first time around, and he only a few short months on this planet.
The Japanese philosopher Watsuji said this wonderful thing about language: “Words are among the most marvellous things that we humans have created. No one person has the privilege of declaring that she alone has created them. In spite of this, for everyone, words are one’s own.” Witnessing our son take words (even nonsense ones) and make them his own has been one of the primary joys of parenthood for me, right up to the moment around his second birthday when I hit play on Cocomelon and he turned to me on the couch with the biscuit in his hand and sighed contentedly and said: “That’s just perfect now.”
Part of my work as a writer has been interrogating how we (humans) use language to tell ourselves about ourselves. What do people mean when they say particular things; what are they really saying? What’s not being said, or what’s the body saying as opposed to the voice? My latest novel, All Along the Echo, is an attempt to see how we tell and maintain the stories of ourselves via radio phone-in shows, spins in cars, chats in pubs, and so on. But another sweet lesson that life with a tiny language learner has taught me is the beauty of nonsense. Of no meaning. Living in this cathedral of language can be an overwhelming experience. Language governs our every conscious move, from the rhetoric coming out of government to our work emails, advertising, the stuff we read and write, the gossip around the estate, the podcast or radio show we tune in to, those beautiful “snake in the grass” Facebook posts (if you know, you know)… But, as Luan progressed from giving basic linguistic intent to agoo, I also found myself exchanging long strings of nonsense sounds with him; language simply as noises and rhythms rolling off the tongue and out of the mouth. Emissions of gibberish. There was, quite suddenly (for me at least), a wonderful therapeutic release to those blabberings, with no clue what sound I’d cut loose next. It was thrilling, to be honest, having spent so long previously working and re-working meaning into sentences, taking sounds so seriously. And there was great joy in hearing that nonsense back from my playmate too.
Imagine my delight then when we progressed from the language acquisition board books (“This is a shoe, son”) to
Dr Seuss: “Moose juice, not goose juice, is juice for a moose / And goose juice, not moose juice, is juice for a goose…” Sure, it means something, technically, but the sheer linguistic giddiness is intoxicating. And the more I think about it, the more faith it gives me in my work as a writer (and indeed as an editor and teacher): that these investigations and repetitions and experiments and games and general worshipping of sounds in one way or another (whether giving meaning or resisting it) are all part of a beautiful, lifelong journey in language. I’ve just spent four years writing a novel about how all day long we are probing our language, and using it to shape and re-shape our existence, our identities. As a writer, a dad, a human, that’s a wonderful, fascinating thing to observe, and partake in, and long may it continue. Agoo!
Danny Denton is a novelist, former editor of The Stinging Fly, and a lecturer in creative writing at University College Cork. His second novel, All Along the Echo (Atlantic Books, approx €18), is out now.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of IMAGE Magazine.