The secret languages of children

Making meaning when the world's on fire

During the early and most terrifying part of the pandemic, when we moved upstate to live with my parents for a 4-month period, Ada invented a language that she spoke with her stuffed bunny called “Nagnolia.” “Like the tree, but with an N,” she would explain, as though she’d invented it before the tree had existed. Nagnolia sounds vaguely like Dutch and loosely like butchered English, spoken with a mysterious but consistent accent that requires pursed lips and squinted eyes.

Ada would explain it was a language spoken only by her and Julian and their loveys, and though adults couldn’t speak it, she was very willing to teach it to us. She would carry on in Nagnolia throughout dinner, sometimes switching languages part-way, then switching back, to an audience happy to be distracted from the news.

“Umbrella is umbretti and mama is menti,” she explained, with there seeming to be some internal consistency and grammatical rules between the made-up vocabulary. She showed no hesitation in lobbing new phrases our way, despite our attempts to give her more and more complex concepts to translate.

Idioglossia is the technical definition for an idiosyncratic language spoken only by one or a few people. It’s in the same family as “twin speak,” or the languages often made up by twins, that often appear early on and seem to develop as twins mimic each other in ways they can understand during the process of learning more dominant languages. These usually give way to whatever language is primarily spoken in the home as skills evolve and vocabulary expands, but these early languages follow pragmatic principles of their own kind, and have their own reason for existing.

Over the pandemic, Julian picked up more Nagnolia, and Ada continued with exuberance. It would appear in fits in car rides between the kids, and emit from under the sheet of a living room fort, spoken at a volume loud enough to try and get my attention.

At some point I realized I hadn’t heard Nagnolia in a while, perhaps in six months. It was at a point when Julian’s tantrums had intensified, and I often found myself whispering to Ada to acquiesce on whatever minor thing was causing the tantrum—the bedtime book choice, who was sitting where at dinner, and who got the bigger half of the exact same sized pieces of cookie.

Before long, to weather these scenarios, Ada and I developed our own language through hand gestures and winks. When she willingly gave up something she wanted to her less reasonable brother, I’d shoot her a wink, and she’d smile, knowing I’d sneak her a few chocolate chips later, and wink back. When she saw me frustrated across the room, on a call or dealing with her brother, she’d use her hands and point to her eye, make a heart with her hands, then a U. I <3 U. When she was insufferable and defiant, and realized it later on, this would also warrant a knowing wink, an apology without words from wherever she could make eye contact with me.

Through these back and forths, I thought about Nagnolia, why it existed when it did, why it might have disappeared or gone dormant. It was created at the height of social isolation, during those many long months in the spring of 2020 when uncertainty was at its highest. And it was also created by a kid, desperately trying to get her parents’ attention, to invite them into her new and weird world, to send them a message before she learned to wink.

P.S. If you’re curious, here’s a video Jacob made of Ada on IG explaining her secret language, Nagnolia.

Recommendations for the kids:

Recommendations for the grown-ups:

  • Watch: The White Lotus (HBO), Mike White’s 6-episode satire about a wealthy group of vacationers who go about defending their entitlement to luxury in utterly cringe-y ways is extremely entertaining, particularly since we, too, are in Hawaii. (The New Yorker review).

  • Listen:70 over 70, the excellent new podcast from Pineapple Street Studios interviewing people over 70, talks to Raffi, who shares his deep gratitude for getting to make the music he makes for children, talks about his Child Honoring philosophy, and explains that he never, ever gets bored of singing “Baby Beluga.”

  • Financial Wisdom: Anne Helen Petersen is dedicating the next few months of her newsletter to giving financial advice. “This is financial advice for people with student loans, for people who pretend they know what a Roth IRA is but really have no idea, and for people who want to balance their individual financial security with the financial health of their larger community. It’s for people with financial anxiety, people thinking about the looming consequences of global climate change, people who just need straightforward prioritization instruction, and people who financially support extended or immediate family. Questions are sourced from subscribers; answers are extremely useful.

That’s it for this week! There are many ways to support the continued creation of this free newsletter. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a friend, like it, leave a comment, and/or send me a note. If you’re looking for career coaching, or know someone with a product / app / startup looking for help, I also do Product Advising. If you like my children’s book recommendations, follow me @kidsbookrecs.

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