This is one of those that, I suspect, most of those hearing don’t really believe, but at one time I had proof. Not that that means a lot, since I think it’s vanished now, but a select handful of people got to hear it.
While I was in my late teens I became an uncle for the first time, and before my niece was talking, she was talking. By that I mean, she uttered absolute gibberish, only not this, “ga ga nub nub” shit, but developed and distinct syllables that more than anything sounded like a foreign language. Moreover, she delivered this with inflections and expressions and even hand motions that gave every indication that she knew what she was talking about and that it was enormously important. She could blather on for hours about her chosen “topics,” more dynamic that half of today’s actors – I used to compare her to William F. Buckley. We never knew where she got this from, because it looked for all the world like speakers on news debates or economics discussions, but neither of her parents watched anything of the sort, and it didn’t seem as emotional or dramatic as the soap operas her mother did watch. It was fascinating to witness nonetheless.
To demonstrate, at one point I interviewed her on cassette tape, to send to relatives. I would pose a question (a legitimate question in actual English,) and she would expound at length with complete nonsense, but earnest nonsense – at times dropping in little asides, and at others her voice would swoop and pounce on the key issues. I’d counter with, “But don’t you feel this is at odds with the Aristotelian ideals?” and she would correct my amateur and boorish misapprehensions deftly.
This went on for several minutes, and then, after one longish paragraph, she paused, sighed, and said, very clearly, “Fuck.”
There was no mistaking this, and bear in mind, despite all her efforts, she had never bothered with real words at all. This was just a random syllable – but she made sure it was nice and distinct, not at all nestled in among the rest of it where it might slip past too quickly. And of course, I had this on tape. Those that heard it agreed that I had not imagined it. None of our family were particularly prudish, so the responses ranged from somewhat disbelieving embarrassment to uproarious laughter – you can imagine the side that I fell upon. Unfortunately, this tape is probably long gone, being close to forty years old, but there remains a chance it’s buried someplace, and if found, it will be digitized just to embarrass her with again.
This was unlike a few years later, when she was talking pretty clearly. She had a rocking horse that she was fond of, and one day while she was enjoying it, she paused and told me, “It’s broken.”
“What’s broken?” I asked, since I had just seen her rocking on it and everything seemed fine.
“It’s not working,” she informed me, as if I was an idiot (this was a frequent attitude towards me, I’m not sure why.)
“I just saw you rocking; it’s fine,” I maintained.
“It’s broken,” she repeated, obviously tired of explaining things to nincompoops.
I sighed heavily and went over to the horse, stretching out on my back and sliding underneath (this was one of those suspended by springs, so there was plenty of space,) and began tinkering with imaginary tools under the smooth belly of the horse. This produced an absolutely delighted, audacious grin from my niece – clearly she had not realized that horses could be repaired like cars. I grunted, I forced a few imaginary bolts, I frowned, I was suddenly inspired, and deftly fixed it all up and had it back together within a minute or two; this did not, unfortunately, rub off on my future abilities to fix actual vehicles in the slightest. I slid out and said, “All set – should be good now.”
She was still grinning hugely as she remounted the horse, and I knew what was coming. She rocked exactly once and said, “It’s broken again.”
Even then, I was not one to be played for a fool by a three-year-old (not beyond those three, no, four other times anyway.) I just shrugged and said, “Well, you’re gonna have to fix it yourself.”
The grin faded instantly into a frown. “I don’t know how!” she protested.
“You just watched me do it; the only way you’re gonna learn is by doing it yourself.”
She tried arguing, but I was adamant. Resigned, she got down and crawled under the belly of the horse, staring up at the smooth white surface. She placed her hands on her hips, exhaled, and said, “Shit.”
Now, this one was intentional, because she had a fine grasp of English (and/or pardonable French) at this point. Her father was the type whose language dropped completely into the gutter the moment any hood was raised, though, so she probably just thought this was a typical car issue, like, “bad plugs,” or, “blown seal.” She knew what naughty words were and didn’t use them, but this simply slipped out in context, like how it’s okay to say, “hell,” when you’re referring to the actual location during sermons.
Her sister, a few years younger, was quite the opposite. She was remarkably unresponsive as an infant, often just sitting there in her high-chair or swing and staring around vacantly, uttering not a sound. I recall my many attempts to get her to even recognize my presence, being apparently the last holdout in our family that she wouldn’t smile for. I might as well have been a painting of an ancient stodgy relative over the mantlepiece.
And then, that magical day, as she sat in her chair and I cajoled her yet again, being as upbeat and enthusiastic to see her as I could, and slowly, her bland and expression-free face began to crack into a broad smile that stretched across her cheeks…
“Ruurrrrrrppppp!” she belched exuberantly, a real rumbler that I still envy, and immediately her expression dropped back into the blandest of department store mannequins. Wonderful.
It comes as no surprise to you, I’m sure, that these opening trends completely inverted before either hit ten years old. The oldest became shy and reserved, while the youngest would. Not. Shut. Up. This remains the case, decades later – the oldest won’t even talk on the phone if she can avoid it. As far as she’s concerned, texting is our greatest recent development.