On Vocabulary

“Can I say ‘annoying’?” That’s the question my daughter has been asking me of late, as she explores the boundaries of the new vocabulary she is learning. “Yes, you can say ‘annoying,'” I reply. “Can I say ‘shut up’?” she asks. “No, you can’t say ‘shut up.'” “And I can’t say ‘shit’,” she states matter-of-factly. That’s right, she already knows she can’t say ‘shit’ but she still gets a tremendous kick from just quickly confirming that fact with me because to do so, of course, means getting to say ‘shit’ all over again without fear of punishment. It’s like the joke my son told me the other day, warning me ahead of time that it contained a curse: A 6-year-old boy was scolded by his parents for still talking like a baby. ‘Why don’t you use more grown-up words,’ they said. So the next day, when he got home from school, his parents asked him what he had done in class and he said: ‘We read a book called Winnie the Shit.’

Words have an awesome power, and there’s no clearer example of that than when children deploy new vocabulary to see what effect their words have on the world. My daughter, for example, wields the word ‘annoying’ all the time now, using it to describe anything and everything that elicits her displeasure. My son, who’s eight, enjoys using mild curse words in safe contexts, like in a joke. He hears other kids using them for real in the schoolyard and can see the mixture of shock and admiration their use evokes in other children. My kids are learning that words are not just airy nothings; they have a very real and dramatic impact on the world—they can make other people laugh or cry, they can help get you what you want, they can get you into or out of a lot of trouble, too.

Adults are usually unconscious of the latent power of language, but you can feel it in full force again when learning a foreign tongue. One of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s best aphorisms is:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

I felt my linguistic limits extended when I learned Dutch about 17 years ago. Each language has words in it that don’t exist in any other tongue, and one of the greatest joys of speaking another language is stretching your mind to encompass this new vocabulary. Gezellig is a word like that in Dutch. It has so many nuanced meanings that it’s impossible to find a simple English equivalent. Indeed, there is no single English equivalent since gezellig is a word that expresses a distinctly Dutch state of mind. It means different things in different circumstances. An evening with friends can be gezellig, meaning friendly and intimate and fun. But inanimate objects can also be gezellig, like a room with a roaring fire in the fireplace, meaning cozy and inviting. But an individual can also be gezellig, meaning that he or she is warm and welcoming. It was not until I learned Dutch, and came to understand the meaning of this word, that I was able to recognize the quality of gezelligheid when I saw it. This not only added a new word to my vocabulary; it added a new experience to my world.

And so it is with my daughter. At almost four years old, she is intrepidly exploring the world of words, experimenting with language to see which words cause happiness, which words cause pain, which words make people laugh, which words make them cry. By trying out words like ‘annoying’, ‘shut up’ and ‘shit’ on me, she’s testing to see if they cause the desired effect. This is something we never stop doing. What American poet John Hall Wheelock wrote is just as true of adults as it is for children:

A child, when it begins to speak, learns what it is that it knows.