A few weeks ago at my family birthday lunch, I observed my niece, who is two, having a fairly lengthy conversation. With the vacuum cleaner. (Since there were no people in her immediate vicinity, I specifically asked if that’s what she was talking to, and she confirmed it.)

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Turning two a couple months prior to that seemed to flip a switch with her talking — before that she talked very little. More, I think, because she couldn’t be bothered than because she didn’t know how. And why should she? She did pretty well getting people to understand what she wanted from a handful of words, whines, and poking. The conversation with the vacuum cleaner, while not entirely composed of recognizable English words, was the longest chat I’d heard her have.

Which got me thinking.


Aside from the fact that I love the idea that, at two, it seems perfectly reasonably to talk to appliances, it got me thinking about language. I noted that her conversation was only partially comprehensible. To me. She knew exactly what she was saying, and I’m fairly sure the actual words (or proto-words) were of no concern to the vacuum.

But beyond that, consider conversation with that level of freedom. She couldn’t have had the same conversation with Mommy, or Grandpa, or even her sister (who is 20 months older). When you talk to people, there are strictures.

To have a proper conversation with an adult, for example, she’d have to make a stronger effort to use “real” words, and make them intelligible. And when she refuses to use words or mangles them, she generally gets a correction to help her learn. Not all humans are “baby”, and not all animals are “puppy”, after all. (Her sister’s refusal to believe me that owls are birds is another story…)

Additionally, a conversation with her sister would be more “kid-esque” than a conversation with Grandpa. Which would be a LOT more kid-esque than a conversation with Aunt Melle. Even at her age — though the differences just increase as we get older.

Different vocabulary, different inflection, different topics, different levels of mutual understanding that can leave things unsaid. (Yes, it is possible to have a very specific conversation consisting only of the word, “dude”.) At two, my niece doesn’t talk to her mother like she talks to her friends, and at 36, neither do I.

But I bet a conversation between my niece and the vacuum cleaner and my niece and the toaster would be indistinguishable. She has a rare window right now of being able to use language that is “unsullied”, at least sometimes. Though it could be argued that “basic” is a more accurate term, since her choices are more based on lack of knowledge to draw on than explicit choices.

For her, it is not unreasonable to talk to appliances whenever you like (as opposed to adults, who generally only swear at them when they don’t work.) And there is a freedom and casualness in doing so because they don’t correct you or tell you to “use your words”, nor will they misunderstand or get offended if you say something in the wrong tone or with the wrong inflection. It’s just you with something to say and using the language you have and decide on to say it. Purified and personalized language.

It got me thinking about how that would apply — if it ever could — in the “real” (read: adult) world. And really, I have difficulty seeing how. My eldest niece is not quite four, and she already understands many of the intricacies and nuances of communication. She addresses her sister differently from adults, she has used profanity “correctly”, and she understands that when you’re telling secret things, you whisper.

The older you get, generally the more circles you add to your communications repertoire. Older and younger family members, various friends groups, significant others, people at school, people at work, people at stores, etc. It’s one of the ideas Google+ Circles is based around: not all relationships are created equal.

It’s a difficult exercise, though, to think of it somewhat backwards, with the form of conversations with different groups separated from the content. As noted, along with how you talk to people, there’s also what you talk about that differs. My mother and I have never discussed the works of Joss Whedon, for example.

Imagine work conversations without the politics. Conversations with your mom without the… mom stuff. Conversations with little kids that weren’t all dumbed down. One language for all.

I wonder if it would improve comprehension, i.e. whether we tend to misunderstand each other because of how we say things as opposed to what we’ve said. But again, it’s nearly impossible to try to separate the how and why from the actual words, because what we’ve said is crafted based on who it’s going to be said to. Functionally, all relationships would have to become equal.

Would language be richer or poorer if we all had our own built-in monolingual Babelfish? I guess it would depend on whether we just automatically understood everything someone said, even if they made up as much language as Shakespeare, or whether it was accomplished by language becoming more codified and less prone to growth and change.

Given what a hot mess English is, I’m inclined to learn toward the former. Though that would have its own form of interesting consequences. One of the biggest ways in which different groups distinguish themselves from others and demonstrate how “in” members are is language. The idea of Snoop Dogg and his “Gs” talking the same way as your grandmother and her friends seems like the stuff of a Funny or Die video. I suspect it might be the death knell for most online meme generators, too. No can has.

In any case, it’s all moot. For the foreseeable future, even with the continued growth of the world’s numbers of English speakers and the global connectivity of the Web, we are in no danger of speaking a truly common language. (Good evidence in these videos, particularly the last one.) Which is probably a good thing for people like me who make a living communicating and translating among various groups to accomplish common goals. 🙂

But nonetheless I feel a pang of sadness that all too soon my niece will be speaking in full sentences. She will tell things to her friends and use words she’d never say to her mother. She will know the words for all the people and animals and what is actually a baby or a puppy. And she will realize that grownups don’t have conversations with vacuum cleaners.

Cuz honestly? I’d kinda like to give it a try myself.

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