By Stephen Miller
“Budgie budgie,” I say to my grandson, aged 15 months. I’m not thinking of budgerigar–a parrot that, according to Wikipedia, is the world’s third most popular pet. For me budgie is a nonsense-word that I enjoy uttering because I like to hear my grandson say “budgie budgie” in reply, which he usually does. When I’m talking to my grandson, I often point to things and say the words for them, hoping he will learn new words, but sometimes I prefer to talk the way he usually talks–uttering sounds that seem to lack any meaning.
In short, I enjoy babbling with him.
My grandson doesn’t always babble. He occasionally says a word after I say it. Today he said nose. I thought he said grandad a day ago, but I’m not sure. He definitely knows two dozen words. Sometimes I think he’s trying to construct a sentence. A stream of sounds comes out of his mouth and he looks at me expectantly, as if he asked me a question. Did he?
Babbling is not something I discussed in Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, which appeared a decade ago. In that book I wrote about the pleasures of banter and raillery–i.e. good-natured disagreement. My grandson is very clever–aren’t all grandsons?–but he is deficient in the art of raillery, and he doesn’t really know how to banter.
How do children go from babbling to saying words and eventually constructing sentences? This mystery has not been solved, but many psychologists and linguists are working on it. I found a website called Learning to Talk–a multi-university research project based at the University of Wisconsin. “Learning to talk,” the website says, “is one of the most fascinating things that children do. In a few short years, almost all children go from gurgling and crying to explaining what they like and don’t like. From a baby’s first words through a preschooler’s detailed conversations, the milestones of early language development are among the most memorable events in a parent’s or caregiver’s life.”
I spent a few hours reading about linguistic development in children. I learned that there are three stages of babbling: reduplicated babbling, variegated babbling, and conversational babbling. I learned also that child development specialists disagree about whether babbling is an essential step for learning how to speak, but they all agree that babies get pleasure from making sounds.
I’m interested in child development, but I’m more interested in adult conduct. Why do I derive so much pleasure from babbling with my grandson? This is my third time around this block–I have two older grandsons–and I still enjoy it. Recently, I spent two weeks with my grandson, who lives with his mother in Los Angeles, and every night I babbled with him. It’s wonderful to see his alert eyes and his wide grin when we make goofy sounds together.
I’ve read many books on conversation but I have not found one that talks about the pleasures of babbling–for adults. Lewis Carroll probably enjoyed babbling with toddlers. “Jabberwocky” begins: “Twas brillig and the smithy toves….” The poem is a riff on a babbling.
Are there fashions in babbling? It used to be that adults said “kichie kichie koo” when they babbled with babies. (Or at least they did that in movies.) I’ve never said those nonsense-words and don’t plan to.
The English essayist Samuel Johnson says that old people derive great pleasure from children and grandchildren. An old person “stands forlorn and silent. . . in the midst of multitudes, animated with hopes which he cannot share, and employed in business which he is no longer able to forward or retard. . . unless he has secured some domestic gratifications, some tender employments, and endeared himself to some whose interest and gratitude may unite them to him.”
My “tender employment” is babbling with my grandson. I much prefer that to reading a banal children’s book to him. (There are some good ones, but not many.) I can pat the bunny only so many times before I feel like screaming.
Many adults, I suspect, love to babble with toddlers, but they are loathe to admit it. My wife and my daughter insisted that they don’t babble, but I’ve heard them babbling several times.
The last night we were Los Angeles, when we were stuck in traffic, my wife started to babble with our grandson. Then my daughter joined in–and so did I. We uttered silly sounds for roughly a half-hour: boop boop ga ga haji haji brrble brrble wha wha budgie budgie. Etc.
It was a veritable babble-athon. Everyone was in a great mood.
Stephen Miller is a free-lance writer. He is the author of Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.