Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In which a small vocabulary makes for broad categories

On many a time throughout any given week, my son can be found in front of our picture window commenting on the traffic flowing by. Or rather, that's what I assume all his excited pointing is about; the only words he provides for the occasion are "puppy! puppy! puppy!" We are not anywhere near a dog park, nor are canines the most frequent pedestrians along our sidewalk. 'Puppy', however, does not just refer to juvenile dogs. As far as my toddler's concerned, the term also applies to birds, cats, and perhaps people. People may just be a synonym of 'animal-puppy' - it's hard to tell - but, as the vehicles zipping by all contain some number of persons, it's the explanation that makes the most sense, unless he's really just focused on the magpies occupying our pine.

This sort of macro-level thinking is hardly reserved for outside observations. All children his size or smaller are babies, all other children just happen to be named after his sister. Men are either Grandpa or Daddy, not always with flattering accuracy in terms of relative age; I cringe in the anticipation of the day some poor woman at the supermarket gets labelled with "Grandma". Everything soft that's made with flour fits under the umbrella of 'bread', with the exception of pasta, which goes under 'rice' along with grapes and raisins. Crackers and cookies, naturally, each get a category of their own. Most fruit is referred to only as 'nana', though, as mandarins now vie with bananas as the all-time fruit of choice, this may be subject to change. 

In a way, I'm not surprised; for a boy of very few words, he sure likes to talk, and such groupings facilitate his copious communications. What's curious, however, is how this type of categorization applies to the non-lingual aspects of his development. I can see it in the way he organizes his world.

While detailed sorting is still beyond him, for example, he understands quite well that containers are meant to hold things. What 'things' appears to rely solely on what's on hand. To him, it makes perfect sense to put towels in the oven drawer, toys in the recycling bin, or crackers in the (thankfully empty) washing machine. Comparably, observations both in the kitchen and at the table had led him to understand that food needs seasoning. Thus, he asks for salt and pepper on everything, and trembles with excitement at the sight of the shakers. So far, I have always refused to grind pepper over his breakfast cereal, but I am sorely tempted to let him see what it tastes like. He may very like it; after all, this is the son of the man who still salivates in remembrance of a certain cinnamon honey peppercorn biscotti (and yes, he's aware that he's weird).

It's a stage that's surely fading. New words expand his vocabulary daily, adding nuance and detail to his structured little world. Maybe someday I'll put those burgeoning organizational skills to work in my office; for now, we'll keep that door closed, lest my files find their way to the fridge.

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