Living with a linguist parent often has the unfortunate side-effect of having your early forays into the world of speech analyzed and made public. But since my son, Patrick, is only six, I’ll leave it to his future self to complain. In preparation for the impending shopping season, I asked Patrick to tell me what his new favorite superhero was. After I finished looking up his answer online, I remembered last year’s interest, Batman. We bought him the always popular “Batmobile”, complete with miniature Batman figure and crime fighting accouterments. He also receive from his grandparents who, in the spirit of creating gift giving synergy, decided on Batman-themed items that would complement his Batmobile.
After some time, I found him playing with these toys and asked him to give me a run down of all the Caped Crusader’s goings-on. He of course offered a very clear summary of Batman’s (and Robin’s) efforts to thwart the likes of the Joker and the Riddler. He also gave me a tour of Batman’s crime-fighting lair, the Batmocave, to which I responded, “The what?” “The Batmocave, Daddy, you know, the place where Batman keeps his stuff and traps the bad guys.” He went on to explain how the Joker would attack the Batmocave using his Jokermocar and would sometimes escape only to return to the Jokermocave. The tales of Batman’s exploits were indeed dramatic.
It’s not uncommon for children to play around with language. This is after all how they end up acquiring speech, formulating a hypothesis about how some structural thingy might work and trying it out. For Patrick, his Batmobile seems to have served as the stepping off point for a series of related (by analogy) items taking the string -mo- to be some independent piece of grammar that allows speakers to piece together a person and a vehicle or location, hence Bat-mo-cave and Joker-mo-car. One might be tempted to consider this a type of infix (i.e. a morpheme within a root) were it not for the fact that English doesn’t really have infixes (except for perhaps instances like abso-freakin’-lutely, which are not technically considered infixes per se). Still, knowing that acquiring English–a language not known for infixation–does not necessarily preclude a child from creating infixes is somehow a comforting thought. Ideally this would mean that we post-critical period speakers might be able to dig out bits of grammatical nuance buried but still available under a grammar (or grammars) that doesn’t make use of these bits. Finding these little linguistic nuggets with adult speakers is more challenging, though they do pop up from time to time.
One of the questions we should ask ourselves is how do we recognize this type of linguistic creativity with children, especially given the prescriptive (and of course communicative) pressures that encourage conformity? Cute though it may be, encouraging the spread of the -mo- affix and other assorted, but useful, linguistic oddities might not endear your youngster to his future teachers. Perhaps we need a linguist superhero to solve these types of dilemmas. Quick, to the Lingmocave!