"Mommy" Means Everything

Cracking the code of baby talk isn't for the weak of heart, as one father discovers

Just so you won't think I'm a complete idiot, let me start off by stating that, well, I'm not a complete idiot. Actually, I'm a pretty normal guy. I've been to school; I can change a tire and whip up a decent omelet. Of course, I have my shortcomings, but communication isn't usually one of them. I speak English and have picked up enough German to order a beer and enough Spanish to order huevos rancheros. Some of the languages I can't speak I can sometimes understand. What I can't understand are my young daughters.

I never would have predicted this problem. I entered fatherhood knowing less about raising children than either of the two kids I had fathered, but I learned as I went along. Through reading and observing, I mastered many of the fathering arts. By the time my first daughter was ready for potty training, I'd learned to change a diaper. By the time she was drinking from cups, I was a successful bottle maker. I mastered sink baths, rectal temperature-taking, and all the verses of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."

Cocky with my success, I was caught off-guard, unprepared to handle the communication gap. I'm talking about the gap that starts with "mama," "dada," or "baba," and ends when the child has mastered the spoken language. The gap is supposed to resume again when the kids reach their teens, but I'm much too busy treading water right now to worry about the next typhoon on the horizon.

Me: "Erin, sweetie, Daddy's going to make your breakfast today. So, what do you usually have?"

Erin (one and a half years old): "Annan want ban."

Me: "Uh, huh." (Ban...ban?...BAN? I begin a slow tour of the kitchen looking for the infamous ban.) "Let's see...where are those bans, Erin? Tell Daddy when he gets close." (Erin giggles and begins clapping her hands, delighted by the new game.)

"Ban, where are you?" (Erin's clapping intensifies and she begins pointing at the top of the refrigerator. I shove aside the potato chips, the duck figurine, and the bottle of wine. All that's left is a bunch of bananas. Ban...ana. Daddy's catching on! I break one off and give it to her.)

Erin: "Annan want ions. Annan want I. Annan want muk." (I begin cruising the kitchen again, hoping for a clue. Nothing comes.)

Erin: (starting to cry) "Annan want ions!"

Me: (trying to reason with her) "Honey, an ion is a charged atomic particle. You can't eat an ion."

Erin: "Granny...applecookie me give!"

Me: "We don't have any apple cookies, Erin. I'm sorry. Maybe Mommy will make some when she gets up."

(Now the ban is eaten, and Erin starts to really wail. My wife appears in the kitchen doorway, her bathrobe untied, her hair untamed, and her eyes at half-mast.)

Wife: "She wants raisins, an egg, and milk. It's the same breakfast she's wanted every morning since visiting Granny in Albuquerque."

What I'd do without my wife I don't know; probably starve my children. There has never been a word uttered by our children that wasn't understood by her. Still, Mom isn't always around to translate; that's why I decided to get fluent in baby talk.

I cased the city. There were classes in labor and delivery, infant CPR, raising a confident child, tactics for tantrums, how to pick a pediatrician--classes in just about everything, in fact, except your basic baby talk. So I decided to get organized. I would discern the basic principles of baby talk and jot them down for myself and anyone else who might benefit from some guidance:

Rule No. 1: Any word that doesn't end in "ie" and can end in "ie" will end in "ie." So, dog becomes doggie, chick becomes chickie, bird become birdie, ad infinitum.

Rule No. 2: "Mommy" means "I want; I need; I see; I love; where's the doggie?; help!; you're sooo mean; look at that; where'd Mommy go?; look at me, look at me, look at me; Daddy, I don't want you--I want Mommy!" and so on. Outstretched arms, tears, smiles, and volume are clues to the specific intent.

Rule No. 3: Any word with two or more syllables will be shortened by one. Pretend becomes "tend," and apple juice will be "ap-juice." The tricky thing about this rule is the number of variations that clever little children can dream up. My older daughter called her spaghetti "spagi." My younger daughter calls hers "sketti." You figure it out.

Rule No. 4: The word "no" forms the backbone of a toddler's vocabulary. It's often the first intelligible sound your baby utters, oh, somewhere around eight months, a full month ahead of "Daddy." From then on, it's no for yes and no for no, and a constant, tuneless hum of no, no, no, no, no, no as she goes about her business plucking the leaves from your favorite houseplant.

Rule No. 5: Sound effects are better than words. It's a "vroom," or a "baaa" or a "quack," or a "mooo" or a "bow-wow." You know you're a card-carrying parent when your spouse tells you, "You had better hurry up and get ready for work or you'll miss your choo-choo."

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