Sussing out baby talk and mutant English
(This article is dedicated to my granddaughter Maya Ruth Richler-Stoffman born in Bloomington, Indiana who celebrated her first birthday on April 5, 2013)
I must confess that my Quebec English is not always understood in the ROC (Rest of Canada), showing we Anglos must not only be bilingual in English and French but be conversant in both Quebec English and standard English. Here's an example: Some years ago, in a previous millennium, I was toiling in the steel industry and as I couldn't speak directly to a Newfoundland customer, I left a messageasking the man to phone me back adding “my local is 222.” I found out a week later why the person never phoned me back. My reference to “local” made him think I represented a union – I should have used the term “extension.” Other examples of this phenomenon are the use by Quebec Anglos of the term “stage” for an internship and during the recent student debacle in Quebec I even several English-speaking people refer to student “manifestations.” Surely. it would not be apparent to most people in the English-speaking world that manifestations are “demonstrations.”
Given that Maya is your quintessential apolitical one-year old not involved with unions and demonstrations, one might ask how she fits into this article. Well, a friend of my daughter (Maya's mom) born in Montreal but now living in South Africa had a similar linguistic experience recently when she asked a Johannesburg mother of a toddler whether she used a “suss.” Thos term was met with total non-comprehension by the mother who surmised that “suss” was a Bantu term she wasn't familiar with. So what's going on here?
In reality, English is available in a plethora of flavours. The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCEL) lists over 400 varieties. Some of them are rather obscure such as Pitcairnese defined as “the creole spoken by the descendants of the mutineers from HMS Bounty, who settled on uninhabited Pitcairn Island in 1790.”
Quebec English is actually one of the mutations listed in the OCEL. In my dealings with the outside world, I'm constantly being reminded, if not chided, about the distinctiveness of my English. Just like my daughter's friend residing in South Africa, many a mother born in Quebec, but bringing up her children eleswhere, is likely to have her mongrel English roots sussed out were she to use the word “suss” as a noun in a baby care context. You see, for many Quebec anglophones a “suss” is their word of choice for a pacifier but this term is not to be found among other English-speaking peoples. That is because it comes from the French-Canadian term for a pacifier sucon or suce and derives from the French word sucer “to suck.” Even in France this Quebecois term would be largely unknown as the definitive word there would be une tetine.
However, this mongrelization is not unusual as the term pacifier varies quite a lot in the English-speaking world. In the United Kingdom the term pacifier is largely unknown and the definitive term for such is a “dummy” because the device is an artificial teat. But even in North America and the UK today many people will use other terms than pacifier and dummy; these include binky or nuk (or nuk-nuk.) Binky was actually a brand name for a pacifier introduced by Playtex in 1948 and produced until 1977. Nuk derives from the Nuk baby product company which was established in Germany in 1964. Interestingly, the term binky grew beyond the sense of pacifier and is often used to refer to a young child's blanket, stuffed animal or other prized possession.
In fact, terms for many products we associate with babies vary considerably in the English-speaking world. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, British English and North American English are two languages separated by an ocean, and we see this chasm in many terms associated with “baby talk.” After all, “popping” a baby in a “cot” in Britain just means placing it there, whereas stating that you “popped” a baby in a North American “crib” might get you arrested for harming an infant.
Also, in England, a nanny changes a baby's nappy and not its diaper. The word “nappy” was first used in English in the 14th century when it referred to a textile fabric and by the next century it referred more specificaaly to a linen fabric. It is in the 17th century that the word is first used to refer to a baby's napkin or cloth. The word nappy is a version of napkin and its first citation in the OED is in 1927. Another transatlantic difference. the “pram” to refer to a baby carriage goes back to 1884 and I was actually that it is actually a shortening of the word perambulator. Nowadays this term has succumbed on both sides of the pond to the more generic descriptive “push chair” or “stroller.”
Happy first birthday, Maya. May you grow to embrace all the forms of English you encounter in the coming year of starting to learn to speak oue ever-changing language.
Howard Richler'st book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in May 2013.