Can’t stop, won’t stop: Being a Parent-Linguistic Anthropologist

A few days ago, my precocious five year old asked me an interesting question: Is OMG a bad word?

I thought quickly. Is it still possible that saying God’s name is vain constitutes “bad”? Of course, it is. These ARE kindergarteners.   

I responded: “Um… maybe some parents think that it is, but I don’t think so.”

Then I caught myself. My daughter has a habit of saying slightly inappropriate things to all kinds of adults, not just me who shrugs it off most of the time. There was a moment last year when she would emphatically say “BOOORING!” randomly. And it’s cute when your toddler says that when you turn on the news channel; but I don’t think a harried teacher with 26 students would find that very cute. In fact, it would probably constitute disrespect.

“Wait! You can say “OMG” at home and you can say it to your friends, but never to a teacher or other adult, ok?”

Phew! So we got through the basics of propriety around OMG, or at least for the KG community of practice.

Then I thought: When does she even say OMG?

What followed as a fantastic moment of ethnometapragmatics by a kindergartner where she explained OMG means “oh my gosh” which she artfully conveyed with a rolling of the eyes and voicing of the “Valley girl” talk. Kids these days, right?

I immediately stopped her and said: Mama HAS to record this (to share on social media, but of course). Then my daughter in her white pajamas with turquoise sheep patterned all over explained her very logical commentary about how OMG means “oh my gosh”, accompanied by the requisite eye rollover.

Screenshot 2014-12-15 16.04.07

(I just googled “rolling eyes” and the images you get are awesome. Note to self: investigate gestural acts around eye rolling more. Just for fun, I put up the Charlie Brown image.)

Then I asked her what I thought was a rather innocuous question: When or why would you say OMG?

I didn’t turn it into a truly metalinguistic interview with more follow-up questions, but when I posted her short answer on my Facebook page to share with friends, someone commented about doing an ethnography of little kid metapragmatics and voicing. Was I using my daughter as a participant for practice? Was my linguistic anthropological self getting in the way of parenting? Honestly, when I watch that little video, I’m struck more and more by how I put on the iPhone light and videotaped her midway through dinner.

I couldn’t even help myself.

I started to investigate this affliction(?) a bit more and found that I am not alone. Indeed in 1787, a guy named Dietrich Tiedemann published observations made on his own children. (Wait, what about this blogpost? Oh, well.) I learned about this fact in a blogpost by Neal Whitman. He writes about a paper he heard given by Arika Okrent presented at the LSA conference where she talks about being a parent-linguist. I will leave it to you to read up on this if you are interested. The bottom line was that linguists have been interested in their children’s speech for, well, centuries, and this is in part because children’s speech is so rich with data.

AND it’s right there, at the dining table, on the walk home from school, while she’s getting dressed for the cold. Nadine, my daughter, talks about the why and how come of language all the time, and truly I can’t even help myself. Okrent also talks about how some parents went a bit further and actually did experiments on their kids. (Eek!) But the point is that those of us on the intersection of studying language and being around children (because we kinda have to) are able to see how complex their ways of processing language use truly are. Okrent explained that while non-linguist parents are interested in the “cute” things kids say, linguist-parents are fascinated by the ways kids get language “right” (while, of course, still being hella cute).

Furthermore as linguistic anthropologists, we are not just interested in the ways that our kids use the language but what that means about who they are in the world, their communities of practice, how they determine the appropriate moment to say “OMG” versus not to say it. There really is a project ripe for the picking in there. Just as soon as I finish my dissertation…

About the metapragmatics of OMG, Nadine explained that you say it when something “weird” happens, and that weird thing can be “amazing or not amazing.” I’m really not sure what to make of that. What makes something weird? What makes it amazing?

I really want to do a follow-up interview.

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