Mrinalini is talking now. Every day, she acquires new words. At first, it seemed that she was simply imitating the words she heard: “Backpack,” I showed her. “Backpack,” she said. “iPod,” I unwrapped my earbuds. “iPod,” she said. But then, days later, she ran into my office and looked over at my old Jansport: “Backpack!” The next week, I found her in my brother’s room fiddling with his iPod shuffle: “iPod!”
She had internalized the words and successfully matched them to their referents, which is no small task. As Rousseau writes in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, “the primitive idea of two things is that they are not the same, and it often takes a long time for what they have in common to be seen.” Mrinalini had begun to categorize, so she could recognize and identify two different bags as both species of “backpacks,” and an old fashioned mini and a trendy blue shuffle as both types of the “iPod.” German shepherds, poodle puppies, Dobermans: all “dogs” that say “woof.” Revlon and MAC: both “lipstick.”
And so it began.
From the identification of objects, Mrinalini swiftly moved to the naming of actions: “kicking,” “rocking.” She began to adopt an imperative form: “up,” when she wanted to be carried; “down,” when she wanted to walk. Forbidden fruit—the dirt and rocks in the sandbox she wanted to taste, the crackers she yearned to smash into the carpet—became “no no.” She would grab a handful of sand and bring it carefully to her mouth, stopping short of her lips as they sounded the words, “no no no,” accompanied by a knowing shake of the head, back and forth, up and down, chin waggling with the classic Indian ambivalence. And she developed a language of assent: “yes,” “okay,” and the charmingly acquiescent, “yeah yeah.”
For Rousseau, the awareness of categories (that all things of a certain height and appearance, with the functions of giving shade and growing fruit, are different but nonetheless all “trees,” and so on) swiftly develops into an awareness of the differences between things in a particular category: “Men began now to take the difference between objects into account, and to make comparisons; they acquired imperceptibly the ideas of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference.” Within the category of fruit, for Mrinalini, there is a clear pecking order: first, kiwi; then, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Cherries only if there is no alternative. When it comes to vegetables, her typical demand is for “peas” and “corn.” As for food in general, she loves “idlis” above all.
Of course, Rousseau was interested in the kinds of preferences that extend into practices of social distinction, leading to the establishment of hierarchies and structures of inequality in human society, preferences premised on judgments about strength, intelligence, and material abundance. But the primitive preference for peas and corn has a lot to do with these more significant operations of discrimination. Until Mrinalini knew that the two things were related—that both peas and corn are foodstuffs that will lessen her hunger—she could not begin to differentiate between them. And until she developed a preference for one over the other, she could not exercise her free will. Now, she makes choices about what she is going to eat, and she has begun to engage in her first bargaining transactions, premised on a fairly sophisticated understanding of the conditional form. Sometimes, I imagine that if she could formulate full sentences, her thoughts would go something like this: “Mama says that if I eat more peas, I can have more corn.” “If I finish my rice, I can have more peas.”
(Granted, she more often expresses herself by picking up her rice and throwing it on the floor, or sitting on it, in the hopes of making it disappear. She says “no” to most foods before she says yes. But the seeds of conditional understanding are there.)
“More” currently features prominently in Mrinalini’ vocabulary, meaning both “more”—more blueberries, more balls, more peas—and “again.” Like all babies, she has a remarkable appetite for repetition. Sing that song “more.” Twirl me around “more.” Let’s go down the slide “more.” Make that bunny hop “more.” “More,” she says, with a slight narrowing of the eyes, as if she doesn’t expect me to do as she asks. “More,” she says again with a smile this time, already coy and aware of subtle facial cues at not even fifteen months of age. “More, more,” she says, refusing to budge.
Sometimes, Mrinalini’s “more” is plaintive; sometimes, it is aggressive and insistent.
Sometimes, like when she wants me to sing some terrible children’s song for the hundredth time, it is annoying. But I try to remain attentive to what Mrinalini’s “more” really is: a primitive avowal of desire, an attempt to make her preferences known, a request for a repetition of a pleasurable sensation, a call for continued engagement in a world of competing desires, fast-paced living, distraction and widespread attention-deficit.
The next stage of language acquisition will involve the more precise understanding and articulation of abstractions, like emotions and time. Already, she has started to say “happy.”
When I leave the house to exercise or work, I tell her, “Mama will be right back.” Sometimes, she seems unfazed and will even issue a cheery, “Bye!” Does she understand the temporal significance of “right back”? Is it different for her from “soon” and “later”?
It’s incredible to hear a child begin to speak. It’s even more incredible to watch children develop the cognitive capacities to discriminate, to make decisions, to articulate preferences, to announce demands: in short, to develop the tools with which to become members of society. In every “woof” is a note of empathy for and interest in another creature. In every “yeah yeah,” an affirmation of life. So I try hard to listen to what Mrinalini is saying, even when it means singing “Little Bunny Foo Foo” that one more time.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.