Monday, September 14, 2009

Budding Linguist

Children's books inspire language play.  Kids most likely have no idea just how fun the language can be in the books they are reading, yet that language fun can open doors of interest.

I already said I went on adventures with Amelia Bedelia as a child, one of my favorites being the hardback version of Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower.  Its tired red edges and faded front picture showed its age, but the inside of the book was pristine (even at a young age, I took care of my books).  One of the great things about Amelia Bedelia books is that they show off the fun you can have with ambiguity in the English language.  In the surprise shower book, Amelia is one of the guests for a surprise wedding shower.  What does Amelia bring with her to the shower?  A hose, of course.  After all, what is a shower without water spraying over all the guests?  Amelia has a tendency to take things quite literally, which leaves kids shaking in laughter and people like me amazed at the quirkiness of our language.  Reading books that explore the nooks of language planted a seed that would grow much later in life when I found out that there was a whole study devoted to having fun with language (linguistics).

As I read to my son, I notice the many ways children's books play with language that, sadly, adult books do not always do.  Take alliteration, for example.  While reading a book about the Backyardigans (Super Senses Save the Day!) to my son, the massive amount of alliteration made the story more fun to read out loud.  One great alliterative sentence is "The alarm sounded, and the four Super Senses skidded to the scene."  The author, Irene Kilpatrick, included many such alliterations that make some sentences roll right off your tongue and others like tongue twisters that make you work for the correct pronunciation.  Anyone who thinks that writing children's books must be easy should first look at all the elements the authors have to think about, starting with how to make the language fun for a child to listen to.  I especially like the authors/script writers who work on the Backyardigans--how could I not love a group of singing and dancing animals whose songs have words like "duplicitous" worked into them?

A lot of adult books don't have that quality of readability about them.  One author whose work I've noticed lately that does have that quality is Sir Conan Doyle.  His Sherlock Holmes stories and books were meant to be read aloud, and I find myself whispering the words as I read because they also roll right off my tongue, with poetic stress patterns, alliteration, and even some near rhymes.  Not all books need language that begs to be read out in front of an attentive audience, but I sometimes wonder if I would be more willing to listen to stories or books on tape (er, CD) if the language of modern-day books were more "listener-friendly."

Last night, my husband leaned over my shoulder and started reading out loud from the pages of the book in my hand; I shut the book and asked him to stop.  If I had been holding a Sherlock Holmes book, I would have been inclined to hand him the book, ask him to keep going, and let myself float away on sentential tides ... "I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman with fiery red hair.  With an apology for my intrusion, I was about to withdraw when Holmes pulled me abruptly into the room and closed the door behind me." ...

(Excerpt taken from "The Red-Headed League")

Happy reading, whether it be aloud or to yourself!

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