I listen to a lot of Children’s music, and it got worse when El Matador was born. Usually, it’s just playing in the background as an alternative to the black silence that will someday consume us all. I’m a big fan of Charlie Hope and Caspar Babypants, but a song that recently caught my ear was called Marzidotes in Pandora. If you stop bathing your child and actually listen to the words, you’ll realize you’re hearing nonsense. And then it gets interesting.
A Dramatic Retelling
I had to take my eyes off my helpless child in his bathtub to look at Pandora and see the name of the song.
“Marzidotes?” I asked, to my son. “What does that mean?”
El Matador, intrigued by my question and where I was looking, stood up and peed on the side of the tub.
“Well,” I continued, “we’re going to have to look up that word later, because that’s what we do when we don’t know what something means. Now let me rinse your hair with pee water.”
Bless the Internet
I put marzidotes into Google, and after a couple of clicks, found myself on the Wikipedia page for Mairzy Dotes, a novelty song written in 1943 by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston. The page lists the song’s refrain:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
Gibberish! No wonder I couldn’t understand what I was hearing, even though it sounded a lot like English. Perhaps if I had paid more attention, I would have heard, as Wikipedia points out, the answer in the bridge:
If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”
Evidently, the song was inspired by one of the writer’s daughters, who came home one day singing Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters.
So that’s interesting. But what really caught my attention was the linguistics side of it. I had found another example of something I wrote about before: clitics. And least, I think I did.
A Second Dramatic Retelling
“Oye, Matador,” I called, corralling my son into my lap. “I looked up that word we talked about last night.”
El Matador shook his head and rolled out of my arms.
“Turns out it’s basically a song full of clitics, probably mostly enclitics, but maybe some proclitics. It’s some kind of clitic.”
“Ball,” said El Matador, picking up a small yellow gym ball.
“What is a clitic, you ask? Great question, son. A clitic is like, um, a temporary word that is created when two words are run together. So like ‘mairzy dotes’ is a clitic party formed from ‘mares eat oats.’ The way I see it, the word ‘eat’ is split right before the ‘t’ and joined to the two words on either side. It’s really very interesting.”
“I know. It’s like when you’re a Texan and you try to say someone is ‘tied up.’ You don’t say ‘tied up’ like some kind of Northerner; you say ‘tie dup.'”
“I am currently using the restroom, father,” said El Matador.
On the Subject of Clitics
(of a word) functioning as a bound form; closely connected in pronunciation with a preceding or following word and not having an independent accent or phonological status.
You may be asking yourself: why the hell would I care about Mairzy Dotes or clitics at all? Well, for one, it might be too early to let your kid listen to Die Antwoord. And for two, an understanding of clitics furthers your understanding of how language flows. And that can be invaluable while writing dialogue.
Last night, Dom and I were at the cafe with some friends discussing the subtleties of language while drinking wine and vaping cloves, and I made the case that the manner in which someone speaks is part of their identity. The way someone uses language, in some way, describes them. A non-native English speaker may put words out of order or struggle with idioms. An overconfident native speaker may consider it is what it is to be a necessary statement.
Writing novels and stories is a lot about finding your voice. Writing dialogue is about finding other voices, and you only get that by listening to other people and understanding how their speech flows from the words in their head.
I have declared El Matador’s first word to be ‘ball.’ Dom disagrees because he’s really not sounding out the L’s. Mairzy Dotes is a good reminder that El Matador’s speech may not be perfect from the get-go. He’s trying to reproduce sounds in his head without any knowledge of how it is written or read. He’s going on pure sound alone.
When I was little, my parents would always ask me to pass the “secador,” which in our house, meant a dish towel. However, since I had never seen the word written down, I couldn’t figure out if it was secador, secathor, or secathorde.
Anyway, the point is that El Matador’s first words and sentences may come out a little like Mairy Dotes, and Dom and I need to be ready to make sense of the nonsense. After all, there’s no Wikipedia entry for ‘dadadagagdaga.’
I think a fascinating side effect of this is that once you learn how your first kid talks you can recognize baby’s words earlier in the second kid (or even in other parent’s kids). I’ve had a couple situations where parents were like “my kid isn’t really talking yet”, and I could make out literally dozens of mashed up words that were used in the correct context but the parent didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t completed the developmental tasks of learning to interpret an early language learner.