Babies and the English Language

As a father-to-be, you get excited and nervous, but there are also some real frustrations and challenges to deal with.

I’m talking, of course, about grammar.

The hoi polloi have never needed an excuse to mangle sentences, but during pregnancy and beyond, the offenses seem to multiply. I’ve noticed three big ones so far.

Who’s Pregnant, Anyway?

“We’re pregnant.” You hear that a lot. Or “You and Betsy are pregnant.” I knew about this construction before, of course, but it’s different when you’re at the center of it.

And I get the sentiment, I really do. It’s a nice thought. It’s emphasizing that the husband and wife are a team, that she’s not on her own. Pregnancy is a situation that encompasses both of us.

But really? “We’re pregnant”? Really?

If Betsy said, “Brian is pregnant,” no one would believe her without some convincing (and improbable) medical test results. If I said, “I’m pregnant,” I might be pregnant with meaning, but I would qualify for zero health insurance coverage. So we’re meant to understand, evidently, that Betsy is pregnant but I am not pregnant but we are pregnant together.

Look, nobody said English was logical, I understand that. But in this case there’s a perfect solution: expecting. As in, “We are expecting a baby, because Betsy is pregnant.”

So About This Baby

The normal way to talk about babies – or so I used to believe – was to say things like “their baby” or “our baby” or “the baby” or “this baby.” You know – standard English.

But as you begin to enter the vortex I am tentatively calling the Baby Dimension, a curious shift occurs. All extra words are dropped, and you simply have “baby.”

“Take good care of the baby” becomes “Take good care of baby.” “Your baby’s heartbeat is strong” becomes “Baby’s heartbeat is strong.” As if “baby” is now a generic, uncapitalized proper name.

It saves you a word, and it’s unambiguous, so I ought to love it. But it just sounds weird.

I wonder what wife thinks about that?

Baby Talk

I understand why babies talk wrong. They’re babies. If they know any words at all, it’s a staggering accomplishment. Good pronunciation and grammar are further down the road.

What’s less clear to me is why adults talk to babies as if they themselves are babies. Grown men and women will pick up a toy locomotive and ask their toddler, “What sound does the choo-choo make?” like some temporary trauma has erased their memory of the word train.

This would make slightly more sense if babies learned words independently, from some external source beyond parental control. But in fact, scientists are pretty damn sure that kids learn language from people who speak it, which is largely the kids’ parents. So if you’re already fuzzy on this whole English thing, it probably doesn’t help if your role model does it wrong on purpose.

I know it doesn’t matter. I’m just grouchy.

What I really don’t understand is when adults use baby talk when speaking about babies to each other. (I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve seen it happen in print.) I mean, at some point you just wonder if they know what the grown-up words are.

Parenting, I’m told, is all about being flexible and going with the flow, and having your priorities in the right place. Pretty sure I’m going to nail it.

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4 responses to “Babies and the English Language

  1. I knew about the “we’re pregnant,” which fills me with the same warmth and good feeling as “She’s 85 years young!” (My mother once almost socked somebody for saying that.)

    But I did not know about the “baby” thing, which makes me think of Dirty Dancing.

    And I’ve never even seen Dirty Dancing. 🙂

  2. I didn’t get a chance to post on your original and rather creative announcement… so congratulations! And I offer my sympathies as everyone in your life will dole out opinions and wisdom even when you tell them no thanks.

    We did the “baby” thing… it drills into your subconscious after a while. However, the baby talk thing we even prevent most adults from talking to our children that way… Its for the better really.

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