words (was nucular and Latino)

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Wed Nov 14 15:07:04 UTC 2001

> No, you are not opening yourself to accusations of prejudice. You are
> clearly prejudiced against this variety, and you admit it. Those of
> us who have a professional interest in language attitudes are not
> horrified (for we see much worse prejudice than yours almost daily).
> But your relfections on th9in sprejudice ar most welcome, for they
> reveal your underlying (nonlinguists') folk theories oif langauge. (I
> use "folk" here, by the way, in no belittling sense whatsoever. I
> mean by "folk linguistics" simply the beliefs held by nonlinguists
> about language. I am, for example, a folk nuclear scientist.)
> Dennis R. Preston

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for the explanation. I'm not quite as naive about words as I may
sound, although I know next to nothing about linguistics. I'm a translator
and spend about ten hours a day pouring over dictionaries and comparing
their definitions with how words are used in the real world. It's also my
favorite pastime after work. I don't trust any dictionary, although I can't
do without them. I never cease to be amazed by the number of words and
meanings I come across _every day_ that aren't listed in the OED, Webster's
Third, Termium (a better _monolingual_ English dictionary than the OED or
anything else as far as technical terminology is concerned), the Grand
Robert, Der Grosse Duden, the Zhongwen Dacidian, the Eurodicautom, and even
the zillions of glossaries on the Internet. Although professional
translators owe lexicographers a debt of gratitude, we're probably more
aware of their dictionaries' strengths and weaknesses than they are
themselves. Here's another prejudice of mine: The language I most love to
hate is Neudeutsch (also known as Denglisch). It almost makes me support the
death penalty. German is such a rich and beautiful language, but in Germany
and Switzerland most business types prefer to write their drivel in
Neudeutsch. The reason I'm writing to you right now is that the text on my
desk is too painful to look at.

Speaking of words, I have a little daughter by the name of Laura. A few
months ago she decided that "minami" meant food. And now when I think of
food I think minami. Every day Laura reminds me that when she uses a word it
means just what she chooses it to mean, neither more nor less. Humpty Dumpty
was right. Instead of translating a document from Neudeutsch, a few months
ago I spent a couple of hours compiling a dictionary of Lauralese for my own
amusement. Let's see... Rummaging through my hard drive... Here it is:

A Dictionary on Historical Principles
Compiled on August 4, 2001

Introduction: Some languages are spoken by a handful of people. Fewer than
30 people still speak Kawesqar. They live near Puerto Eden, in Wellington
island, Chile. Some languages are imaginary, such as the ones described by
Borges in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Some languages are only
spoken by one person, and only for a time. This short dictionary is about
one such language. It may come in handy if you visit the village of
Thollon-les-Mémises in the French Alps, especially if you come soon.
Lauralese is the evolving language Laura has spoken since she was born on
January 27, 2000. In a year or two, Laura will probably be speaking French
and English, because that's what Véronique and I, her parents, speak to her.
At first I thought of speaking Spanish, my mother tongue, with her, but I
changed my mind, because my English is a darn sight better than my Spanish.
In this dictionary "we" and "us" means Véronique and me, or Véronique, me,
and Laura.

"AINSI font, font, font, Les petites marionettes, Ainsi font, font, font,
Trois p'tits tours et puis s'en vont." This was Laura's favorite song
between the ages of six months and a year. Whenever Véronique sang it, Laura
would turn her little hand backwards and forwards and back again. Sitting in
front the kitchen mirror by the sink, Laura would often wave "ainsi font,
font, font" even when nobody was singing -- except, for all we know, Laura
herself in her mind. For many months, the kitchen mirror and this song were
a well of smiles and laughter for Laura. But then, one day, she lost
interest in the mirror and the song.

BATEAU. Boat or ship. This is Laura's favorite word and thing in the whole
world. She can spot a bateau several miles away in Lake Geneva. When she
wakes up in the morning the first word she says is bateau. She practices
this word for about twenty minutes in the morning before moving on to other
words, such as Maman and Papa. Laura won't take a bath without a bateau, but
with it she laughs and laughs and says.bateau.

BÉBÉ. Baby. Laura is tall for her age and goes around saying bébé to kids
who're older but smaller than her. Some parents don't take kindly to this.
The other day Lise, who's smaller but six months older and much stronger
than her, didn't appreciate being called bébé. So she pushed her and made
her cry. Lise is grownup enough to look after her family's goats.

BYE-BYE. Laura always says bye-bye when somebody is leaving. Leaving the
country, the house, or just the room. Leaving for ever, for days, or for a
minute or two. Sometimes Laura says bye-bye in a none-too-subtle way to
whomever we happen to be talking to. But only if the conversation has gone
on for too long. Laura loves water so much that when it's time to quit
playing with it she says "bye-bye d'eau."

CACA. Poop. Laura says caca whenever she poops, which is convenient. Britons
are advised that to poop means to poo.

CACO. Tractor. Laura lives in the boonies and gets to see cacos almost every
day. Big trucks are also cacos.

CAT. Whenever Laura sees a cat she says cat. Sometimes she says minou, which
is French for kitty. And occasionally she says chat, which is French for
cat. Laura loves petting Mishu and Koshka, though she never calls them by
their names which, incidentally, mean cat in Quechua and Russian. Laura
sometimes gets so excited that she ends up pulling their tails. But Mishu
and Koshka always respond with equanimity. When she first learned the word
cat she applied it to all sorts of animals bigger than bugs. Now cat only
means cat, except that Tigger (of Pooh fame) is also a cat.

CORE. Encore, or more please. Especially if it's Chinese food and especially
if it's served with chopsticks.

DANCING. Laura dances whenever she hears music. Last September I scribbled
these words: "We've hung a rope from a beam on the living-room ceiling and
attached a cotton harness to it. Laura fits snuggly in the harness, which
reaches down a few inches above the floor, allowing her to stretch her legs
and stand up. When pushed, the harness swings like a pendulum. Propped up by
the harness, Laura loves to stand, take a step or two, and dance. Last night
she performed what looked for all the word like ballet steps: a pointe, a
half-pointe, and a posé, which ain't half bad considering that she has yet
to learn to crawl. She started out adagio and in no time moved up to allegro
or, rather, allegra, judging by her smile and her laugh. Then we put on
Cuban music and danced the night away, all three of us, Véronique, Laura,
and I. For a good twenty minutes. Laura can't talk or walk yet, but she's
teaching Véronique and me much we didn't know about laughing and loving and
living." Even when she's strapped to the babyseat in the car and the music
is playing Laura manages to dance: she swings her head and arms and legs.

DODO. It's bedtime. Sleep. Laura's says dodo right before going to sleep and
immediately upon waking up, just in case we hadn't noticed that she was
asleep. Laura also says dodo to Winnie the Pooh shortly after Véronique says
her nightly prayers with her. When she sees a sleeping baby or a doll that's
supposed to be asleep, she says bébé dodo.

DOG. Dogs are either called dog or chien. Laura's favorite dog is Sugaine,
Gille's husky. This summer Sugaine is helping Gilles look after 300 sheep
several hundred miles from here. But Sugaine and Gilles often come to visit
us and whenever they do Laura hugs "dog" and buries her head in her furry

D'EAU. Water. The French word is eau but Laura prefers to say d'eau,
although pedants might point out that it ought to be "de l'eau." What do
they know. Laura loves water whenever and wherever she comes across it: in
the lake, the bathtub, a glass, or in a mountain stream. She also likes to
pull up a chair to the kitchen sink, get on it, point at the faucet, and say
"d'eau." If the water doesn't get turned on immediately, she says
"d'eau!" -- only louder.

EVIE. This is the only personal name Laura says clearly. Evie is a
six-year-old girl who lives with her two-year-old sister Lise and her
parents Franck and Laurence in a mountain clearing called Cornien. They keep
goats and make cheese and live in a hut without electricity or many of the
creature comforts most French people take for granted. Laura loves them very
much, and Evie most of all.

FFF FFF. Even before Laura learned to say her first word she said a lot.
>From the age of 8 to 13 (months) she loved to blow at the mobile that was
hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Whenever she blew on it the elephants on
the mobile would dance. To get us to blow and make the mobile turn and the
elephants dance, she'd blow in our direction. One day she motioned or,
rather, blew for us to blow and in no time all three of us were blowing
away, although we were in Geneva, 40 miles from the mobile. For all I know
the elephants started dancing even though no one could see them. From a very
early age Laura also learned to say good morning and goodbye with a wave of
the hand. And that's not her only gesture. See next entry.

HAND OVER HAND. From a very young age, Laura took to greeting strangers with
one hand placed over the other, as was the Chinese custom in imperial times.
Although we, her parents, met in China and love things Chinese, we have no
idea how she learned this gesture or why she practices it. We've never done
it ourselves. Laura sometimes performs this mandarin greeting when we're
driving along in the car and she spots a man or a cyclist on the sidewalk.

LALA, DADA, ADA. Those were Laura's first words on waking up on September 3,
2000. Before that Laura had said plenty of things with her eyes and hands
and smile, but this was the first time she said lala, dada, and ada.

LAUGHING. Laura's laughter is beyond description. It's the most beautiful
sound I know. And the most fun. She laughs a lot.

MAMAN. Véronique, Laura's mom. This morning Laura and Maman laughed and
giggled and laughed together for hours.

NAMNAM. Food or eating. Laura's favorite namnam is cucumber salad with
Chinese vinegar. And bananas. But not together.

NANNIE. Laura's attempt to say Annie. Annie is Laura's nanny, but I'm pretty
sure that when she says Nannie Laura means Annie, not nanny. Annie is a
wonderful nanny, better than Mary Poppins. If Laura could say
supercalifragilisticexpialidocious she would. But she can't, so I'm saying
it for her: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

NO in English and NON in French. Laura says no when she means no. Sometimes
she says no when she means yes, but she's kidding. Laura learned the meaning
of the word before she turned one. We told her that she could play with
anything that tickled her fancy, except for slippers and newspapers. Even
before she could walk, one of Laura's favorite games was to crawl up to the
coffee table, sit up, and touch a newspaper ever so delicately with the tip
of her index finger, looking at me sideways to make sure I was watching.
When I said "no Laura" she'd shake her head with deliberation, give me
half-serious, half-smiley look, and crawl away. Then she'd sit up again a
few feet from the table and would shake her head once more. If you put a
slipper in the middle of the room, Laura would crawl toward ir, touch it
lightly, and look at you waiting for a response. When you said no, she'd
shake her head and smile. Laura hears the word yes more often than the word

OH-OH. Have you seen the movie Rainman? Whenever she does something silly or
drops something, Laura says oh-oh just like Rainman. The other day she said
oh-oh as we were crossing a border in the car. I'd forgotten my passport. If
you haven't seen the movie Rainman, get it from your video store and you'll

PAPA. Yours truly, the compiler of this dictionary.

PAPEAU. Laura's word for chapeau or hat. Laura loves hats. Whenever she sees
me without a hat, she looks for one, gives it to me, and says "papeau,"
which means "put on your hat, dad." I shall always call hats papeaux, at
least in my mind.

PIPI. Pee. Laura says pipi whenever she pees, which is convenient.

POOH. Winnie the Pooh. Laura loves him. Pooh is sometimes in her room and
sometimes in the TV set. There's also a picture of Pooh on the wall.

QUOI? What? Pardon me? I don't understand. What's your problem? Pay
attention to me!

TUTU. Car. Laura says tutu whenever she sees a car or a picture of a car.
But shoes are also called tutu, maybe because it sounds a bit like
chaussure, which is French for shoe. Or maybe not. Once Laura said shoe in

Paul Frank
English translation from Chinese, German,
French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese
Tel. +33 450 709 990 - Thollon, France
E-mail: paulfrank at post.harvard.edu

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