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The world according to Darwin

Darwin wading in the water, carrying a small stickNo, not Charles Darwin, but rather my granddaughter Darwin.

At sixteen months, Darwin is trying to understand the world around her. The picture to the left shows her wading through the waters of Lake Cochituate, which, per Darwin, is "a bath". She's seemed interested in observing that when thrown into the "bath", some things (such as "a rock") sink to the bottom, while other things (such as "a stick") float on the surface. She likes to throw things into the water and watch them splash.

She's adding to her vocabulary at a rapid rate. Her utterances are primarily single word nouns (such as "rock", "stick", "dog", "plane", and so on) and single-word verbs ("rock", "go", "more"). She also says "yes" and "no", the latter more often than not as part of "No, no, no, no!" (she tends to be very emphatic when saying "no"). Ryan and Elissa have lost track of the total number of words in her vocabulary.

She does, irregularly, add the article "a", and the pronoun "I", saying things like "a rock", and "I go", but she doesn't seem to have generalized the idea of articles and subject pronouns. In fact, her added "I" seems to be able to refer to either herself, or to someone else. If she points to you while saying "I do I do I do it", she means for you to do it. And she once pointed at herself and said "you".

Darwin on a 'rocking horse' that looks like a beeYou might note a possible source of confusion in the words listed above: "rock" is both a noun and a verb, and both of them are significant to Darwin. She first learned "rock" as a verb, when she learned to rock on her toy rocking-bee, saying "rock, rock, rock", synchronized with her motion (click here to see a QuickTime video of her in action).

Later, when a rock was pointed out to her, she repeated the word, and made a rocking motion with her body. But eventually she accepted that the word had two meanings. She now spots rocks all over the place, and often picks them up and carries them around.

She has a favorite rock or two that she keeps at home. Her selection is carefully monitored by her parents to ensure that they are too big to be a choking hazard.

We've noticed, though, that Darwin's partitioning of the things in the world into named sets doesn't necessarily correspond to ours. After all, she's not learning her words from a dictionary, she's learning them by observation, and usage by the adults around her.

Here are some rocks, according to Darwin:

A real rock     An acorn     A section of asphalt pavement with embedded pebbles

You can see that the word "rock", to Darwin, seems to mean anything small and roundish. One might think that the word refers to things she can pick up and carry around. But she also sees rocks in asphalt, even though they are much smaller, embedded in the tar, and not capable of being picked up and carried. Does color have something to do with this? Being roundish?

But not too round. If it's too round, it's a "ball". Here are some balls:

A beach ball     A garbage can with a spherical top     The circular Pepsi-Cola logo

As you can see, a "ball" is anything that's spherical, or even half spherical, like the top of a garbage can. Or just circular, like the Pepsi-Cola logo, even if it's actually flat.

Darwin holding a Swedish meatball in each handWe recently took Darwin on her second trip to IKEA. Of course, she joined us for lunch, and we handed her a couple of IKEA's famous Swedish meatballs. Due to their size, color, and generally rough texture, I expected her to call them "rocks".

But she immediately called them "balls", perhaps because she had overheard us talking about them. She seemed to treat them as toys to play with, until we told her, and demonstrated to her, that they were good to eat. She then tentatively bit off a little bit of one with her front teeth, and chewed it thoughtfully. Apparently declaring them good, she proceeded to polish off a few.

It was on this trip to IKEA that Elissa bought Darwin her own lightweight brush-and-dustpan set (called "BLASKA" by IKEA, it's a mere $1.49). Now, when Elissa sweeps up, Darwin fetches her own brush and dustpan, and helps. Sort of - she's not very good at actually getting dust and crumbs into the pan. But it's the thought that counts.

Getting back to vocabulary, Darwin identifies sheep, which she calls "baa-baas":

A sheep     An old-English sheepdog

OK, her partition of animals into sheep and dogs doesn't exactly correspond to ours, as the animal on the right is actually a sheepdog, not a sheep. But her distinction seems clear: very wooly animals are sheep, and shorter-haired animals, of all sizes, are dogs. Unless they're cats. She knows about cats. And goats.

As for water, if there's a lot of it in a large container or a hole in the ground, it's a "bath", but if it's in anything that looks like a cup, it's "water" (and it's presumed to be drinkable). Margie scooped a small plastic bucket of water from the lake, and handed it to Darwin, who moved it to her mouth to drink. Evidently, the bucket was small enough to be perceived as a cup. I stopped her from drinking it, of course, and got her clean water in one of her sippy cups.

Many of Darwin's words are shortened to single syllables, but Elissa reports that she does have some impressive multi-syllabic words and noun phrases: ear plug, umbrella ("umbra"), eyebrow, ice cream, and turtle ("tur-tal").

It's fascinating to watch all these developments, even if we don't always understand exactly what she's thinking. And of course, Darwin changes so rapidly that by the time we do figure something out, she's on to something else.

That's it for now - I go! I go!

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#0240   *FAMILY2

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© 2014 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted July 24, 2014

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