One day well before I became someone’s mom, my best friend showed up at our door with her two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, fresh from the Museum of Transport and Technology. I kneeled down and asked the little guy what he’d seen at the museum: the trains, the planes, the earthquake simulator?
“Choo choo ni ni,” he replied forlornly.
At my perplexed look, my friend explained, “When we left the museum we had to say goodbye to the trains.” But I still must have looked about as cognisant as a grazing water buffalo because she then added, “You know, nighty-night to the choo choo train.”
“Oh sure, choo choo ni ni, of course!” I lied casually, thinking to myself, Only a mother would understand that.
But now that I’m a mother of a two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, I too have become adept at deciphering phrases that sound a bit like Archaic Sumerian and translating them back into one of the official living languages the rest of us speak. This decoding task alone is nearly a full-time job because, at two and a bit, we get lots of talking. Lots of babbling with Italian or English intonation, punctuated with real words and accompanied by a form of sign language that he may have picked up from that orangutan documentary. We also get lots of very drawn-out and meaningful ‘umm’s and ‘eeh’s. Lots of stories, appeals, confessions, imperial decrees. We get stream of consciousness, poetic license, divine inspiration.
Don’t get me wrong: we do get a fair share of easily understood phrases such as the ever useful “I wanna go down” or the even more useful “pompa di benzina” (gas station in Italian). But for the most part I’ve discovered that communication with a two-year-old involves a great deal of interpretation on the listener’s part.
This listener is usually the mom. It’s a good thing, too, because mothers are born interpreters, or perhaps it’s the intensive backbreaking military training (complete with sleep torture) that we’re put through at the start. In any case, after a while interpreting becomes less of an acquired skill and more of a sixth sense, of the variety moms all over the world use to diagnose a mild fever solely by caressing a foot (with the sock still on it). It’s the same awesome power of divination that tells you whether it is going to be a scrambled-egg morning or a blueberry-pancake morning. Or a please-just-eat-your-toast-in-the-carseat morning. The same uncanny insight that tells you whether that disturbingly long silence from the other room is due to your child’s absorption in a game or a diaper absorption test of mass proportions.
In my case, this daily interpreting job is complicated by the bilingual nature of my son’s speech. His own dad constantly has to yell out at me as he’s bathing him to ask things like, “What does bolle mean again?” (Bubbles.) And it’s almost heartbreaking the way our toddler tries to flirt with the girls in front of the zoo’s tiger enclosure by offering them some of his “acqua”. Someone ought to tell that boy that picking up girls by speaking Italian is only going to work much much later in life. And that it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than water.
Until then, at least his mother can understand him. And to prove to you just how good I’ve become at interpreting the most impenetrable of local dialects, here are a few recent examples of my toddler’s speech:
“Tango nam-nam palle” – this means, naturally, “The big monkey is eating blueberries.” Tango is from the Italian orango tango: if a smaller species is intended, my son employs the more common term monkey. Nam-nam is onomatopoeic, although most of us primates don’t really make this sound when eating. Blueberries indeed resemble little purple balls (palle, an indispensable word in Italy). I don’t think I’m being biased when I say that Tango nam-nam palle shows incredible wisdom: according to the Discovery Channel, orangutans do in fact subsist primarily on a diet of berries and other fruit.
“Abs cats” – you’re probably thinking this is the name of a feline weight-loss program. But, in actuality, abs is English for ‘rabbits’. Cats are ‘carrots’. I forgive you if you are less impressed by this much more common tidbit of knowledge about the diet of an ordinary pet.
“Kino nanna hia” – no, this is not Maori. The phrase means: “The rabbit is going to sleep here.” Kino is an idiosyncratic short form of coniglio, ‘rabbit’ (note the double vocabulary my son possesses here: see previous entry), and must be rigorously distinguished from kina (for cannella, ‘cinnamon’) and kima (camomilla). Italian nanna can be roughly translated as ‘beddy-byes’. Hia is my phonetic rendering of the worryingly thick Kiwi accent my toddler is developing, most notable in the word ‘here’.
“Ka-a picco bovo” – depending on the context, this could mean either “The little car has a boo-boo (injury)” or “The car has a little boo-boo.” (Ka-a = Kiwi for ‘car’; picco = piccolo, ‘small’; bovo = bua, ‘boo-boo’.)
“Cacca achoo” – a ‘cacca sneeze’ or, figuratively speaking, flatulence. If this term is not divine inspiration, I don’t know what is.
But nobody’s perfect. Sometimes if I don’t correctly guess what my son is trying to say, he looks embarrassed by his failure to communicate. This breaks my heart. But most of the time he just laughs and gives me a look that speaks a thousand words. Even then I am still able to work my interpretive magic because I’m pretty sure he’s trying to tell me: “Thanks for trying, Mamma, you’re a doll. But you sure are slow.”