Blame it on Elmo

« previous post | next post »

Over on the American Dialect Society mailing list, we've returned to the topic of illeism, the use of third-person expressions to refer to oneself (treated on Language Log last year), in particular, illeism in speech to or from young children, as in:

[mother to child] Mommy has to go now.

[from child named Kim] Can Kim have ice cream?

As Larry Horn noted, such illeism seems to be a way of coping with the difficulty that young language-learners have with first- and second-person pronouns, which famously are "shifters", with reference that shifts from context to context. Ordinary proper names (like Kim) and kin-terms used as proper names (like Mommy) have a reference that doesn't depend on context the way the reference of first- and second-person pronouns does. Horn recollected:

I recall a Sesame Street episode when our own children were at the appropriate tender age that attempted to "teach", or at least play on, such issues involving the proper use of "I"/"you", "my"/"your", etc.

Carrying the Sesame Street theme in a different direction, I added that Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky reported to me some time ago that toddlers' use of their names for self-reference comes up repeatedly on parenting discussion sites, usually in the context of blaming Elmo for it. Elmo refers to himself as "Elmo", and parents reason that their kids picked up their illeism from Elmo. Where else could it have come from?

There's a suppressed premise in that reasoning, and when it's exposed we can see that this way of looking at things is pretty much backwards. And that it ties in with other widespread beliefs about what happens in child language acquisition.

Where else could it have come from? Well, one possible contribution to toddler illeism is parental illeism, as in "Mommy has to go now". When parents use kin terms — whichever ones are local custom in your household — to refer to themselves, they are easing the perceptual burden on their kids; instead of asking the child to work out that I refers to X when X says it and to Y when Y says it, parents use Mommy and Daddy (or their equivalents) as proper names, each a rigid designator for one person (including when one parent uses the name with reference to the other when talking to the child).

However, parents don't necessarily think of such uses as proper names, so they might well not connect their toddlers' illeism to their own. I have no idea how many parents object to toddler illeism use and kin-term illeism to their kids, but I suspect the number is considerable.

But let's consider parents who resolutely avoid kin-term illeism and instead use only first-person pronouns in reference to themselves. They talk to their kids "correctly". How could their kids develop toddler illeism?

Again and again, Elmo is the presumed culprit. It does no good to point out that toddlers all over the world do this and did it long before Elmo came into being. The parents know what they see (ok, hear), and they simply reject any other account. Elmo talks this way, other people don't, and my kid talks this way, so the kid must have picked it up from Elmo. If you offer the obvious alternative — that Elmo talks this way because he's talking like a toddler (presumably, to be approachable and friendly) — the parents are baffled. This is a children's television show designed to TEACH, after all, the parents say, so it should present nothing but correct models. Otherwise, their kids will learn the wrong lessons.

Two things here. The first is that kids are inevitably — and, in my view, rightly — exposed to a wide range of linguistic variants from an early age, and part of their task in acquisition is to locate themselves within this huge universe of variation, to find their place there (which will continue to change throughout their lives). Many of the variants will be ones that parents (or at least those who participate in internet discussion groups on parenting) consider incorrect; in particular, many of the variants that are incorrect from the point of view of the parents will come from other children. (And of course no parents can insulate their kids from the speech of other kids.)

The parents' assumption here seems to be that certain models — their own speech, the speech of teachers, the speech of certain characters on television, and so on — are especially significant influences on their children's linguistic development. The evidence for this is slender, but the assumption lies behind many parents' attitudes towards these models: in denunciations of Elmo, in passionate objections to parents who use baby-talk to their kids (a topic I've been intending to post about for a long time), even in criticisms of cartoonists whose characters don't "speak correctly" (as I reported on here).

The second assumption at work here is that language acquisition is entirely a matter of kids imitating models from people around them, so that "incorrect" variants must arise either from poor models or from imperfect imitation. Most people think of small children as passive participants in acquisition, while many decades of research on acquisition indicates that they are instead actively engaged in the process of acquisition, frequently coming up with variants for which they have no obvious model. Elmo is irrelevant (except insofar that he speaks like a toddler in some respects). Toddler illeism is a temporary solution to the complex problem of self-reference, and keeping your kid away from Elmo won't prevent it.


Comments are closed.