Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/April 1895/Studies of Childhood VII

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IN a previous paper I traced some of the earlier steps in the child's acquisition of language. In the present study we may follow him in his later and more ambitious linguistic efforts.

The transition to this higher plane is marked by the use of the complete form of thought or sentence.

At first, as already pointed out, there is no sentence structure. The child begins to talk by using single words. His speech is monepic.

These words consist of substantives, such as "mamma," "nurse," "milk," and so forth; a few adjectives as "hot," "nice," "good"; a still smaller number of adverbial signs, as "ta-ta," "away" or "over," "down," "up"; and one or two verb forms, apparently imperatives, as "go." The exact order in which these appear, and the proportion between the different classes of constituents at a particular age, say two and a half or three, appear to vary greatly. Words descriptive of actions, though very few at first, appear to grow numerous in a later stage.[1]

In speaking of these words as substantives, adjectives, and so forth, I am merely adopting a convenient mode of description. We must not suppose that the words as used in this simple disjointed talk have their full grammatical value. It is not generally recognized that the single-worded utterance of the child is an abbreviated sentence or "sentence word" analogous to the sentence words found in the lowest known stage of human language. As with the race so with the child, the sentence precedes the word.[2] Moreover, each of the child's so-called words in his single-worded talk stands for a considerable variety of sentence forms. Thus the words in the child's vocabulary which we call substantives do duty for verbs and so forth. As Preyer remarks, "chair" (Stuhl) means "There is no chair"; "I want to be put in the chair"; "The chair is broken," and so-forth. In like manner "dow" (down) may mean "The spoon has fallen down."[3] The particular shade of meaning intended is indicated by intonation and gesture.

This sentence construction begins with a certain timidity. The age at which such conversation is first observed varies greatly. It seems in most cases to be somewhere about the twenty-first month; yet a friend of mine, a professor of literature, tells me that his boy formed simple sentences as early as fifteen months. We commonly have at first two-worded sentences formed by two words in apposition. These may be what we should call an adjective added to and qualifying a substantive, as in the simple utterance of the child C——, "Big bir" (bird), or the exclamation "Papa no" (papa's nose); or they may arise by a combination of substantives, as in the sentence given by Tracy, "Papa cacker"—i. e., "Papa has crackers"; and one quoted by Preyer, "Auntie cake" (German, "Danna Kuha"—i. e., "Tante Kuche") for "Auntie has given me cake"; and in a somewhat different example of a compound sentence also given by Preyer, "Home milk" (German, "Haim Mimi"), which interpreted is "I want to go home and have milk." In the case of one child about the age of twenty-three months most of the sentences were composed of two words, one of which corresponded to our verb in the imperative, as "go!"

Little by little the learner manages longer sentences, economizing his resources to the utmost, troubling nothing about inflections or the insertion of prepositions, so as to indicate precise relations; but leaving his hearer to discover his meaning as best he may; and it is truly wonderful what the child manages to express in this rude fashion. Pollock's little girl in the first essay at sentence-building, recorded at the age of twenty-one months and a half, actually managed a neat antithesis: "Cabs dati, clam clin"—that is to say, "Cabs are dirty, and the perambulator is clean." Preyer's boy, in the beginning of the third year, brought out the following: "Mimi atta teppa papa oi"—that is to say, "Milch atta Teppich Papa fui," which appears to have signified, "The milk is gone, it is on the carpet, and papa said 'Fie.'"

The order of words in these first juxtapositions is noticeable. It frequently differs from what we should suppose to be the natural order. Sometimes the subject follows the predicate, as in an example given by Pollock: "Run away man"—i.e., "The man runs" or "has run away"; and in the still quainter example given by the same writer, "Out-pull-baby 'pecs (spectacles)"—i. e., "Baby pulls or will pull out the spectacles." In like manner the attributive (adjective used as predicate) may precede the subject, as in the examples given by Maillet, "Jolie la fleur" (pretty flower), and so on.[4] Sometimes, again, the object comesbefore the verb, as apparently in the following example given by Miss Shinn: A little girl, delighted at the prospect of going out to see the moon, exclaimed, "Moo'-'ky (sky) baby shee" (see).[5] Another kind of inversion occurs when more complex experiences are attempted, as in connecting "my" with an adjective. Thus one child said prettily, "Poor my friends."[6]

These inversions of our familiar order are suggestive. They have some resemblance to the curious order which appears in the spontaneous sign-making of deaf-mutes. Thus a deaf-mute answered the question, Who made God? by saying, "God made nothing"—i. e., "nothing made God." Similarly the deaf-mute Laura Bridgman expressed the petition "Give Laura bread" by the form "Laura bread give,"[7] Such inversions, as we know, are common in certain languages—e. g., Latin. The study of the syntax of child language and of the sign-making of deaf-mutes might suggest that our English order is not the spontaneous or natural order of expression.[8]

A somewhat similar inversion of what seems to us the proper order appears in the child's first attempts at negation. The child C—— early in his third year expressed the idea that he was not going into the sea thus: "No (his name) go in water, no." Similarly Pollock's child expressed acquiescence in a prohibition in this manner: "Baby have papa (pepper) no," where the "no" followed without a pause. The same order appears in the case of French children: e, g., "Papa non"—i. e., "It is not papa," and seems to be a common if not a universal form of the first half-spontaneous sentence-building. Here, again, we see an analogy to the syntax of deaf-mutes, who appear to append the sign of negation in a similar way: e. g., "Teacher I beat, deceive, scold, no"—i. e., "I must not beat, deceive, scold my teacher," In the use of special signs of affirmation the correspondence seems less close. Thus Pollock's child was wont to emphasize a positive statement in this way: "Es, es (yes, yes), baby's book there," The deaf-mute appears in such cases to append the affirmative sign.

Another closely related characteristic of this early childish sentence-building is the love of antithesis under the form of two balancing statements. Thus a child will often oppose an affirmative to a negative statement as a means of bringing out the full meaning of the former. The boy C——, for example, would say

"This a nice bow-wow, not nasty bow-wow." This use of negation by way of contrast or opposition took an odd form in the case of one child, who, at the age of two years and two months, would describe things by negations. Thus an orange was described by saying, "No, 'tisn't apple"; porridge, by saying, "No, 'tisn't bread and milk." It is interesting to note that deaf-mutes proceed in a similar fashion by way of antithetic negative statement. One of these expressed the thought, "I must love and honor my teacher," by the order, "Teacher I beat, deceive, scold, no! I love, honor, yes!"[9]

These first essays in sentence-building illustrate the skill of the child in eking out its scanty vocabulary by the help of a metaphorical transference of meaning. Taine gives a charming example of this. A little girl of eighteen months had acquired the word "coucou" as used by her mother or nurse when playfully hiding behind a door or chair, and the expression "ça brûle" as employed to warn her that her dinner was too hot, or that she must put on her hat in the garden to keep off the hot sun. One day, on seeing the sun disappear behind a hill, she exclaimed, "A bûle coucou."[10]

It is a tremendous moment when the child first tries its hand at inflections, and more especially, in our language, those of verbs. Pollock's child made the attempt, and successfully, at the age of twenty-two months. Such first essays are probably perfectly imitative, the precise form used having been previously heard from others. Hence, while they show a growing thought-power, a differencing of relations of number and time, they do not involve verbal construction proper. This appears as soon as the child carries over his knowledge of particular cases of verbal inflection and applies it to new words. This involves a nascent appreciation of the reason or rule according to which words are modified. The development of this feeling for the general mode of verbal change underlies all the later advance in correct speaking.

While the little explorer in the terra incognita of language can proceed safely in this direction up to a certain point, he is apt, as we all know, to stumble now and again; nor is this to be wondered at when we remember the intricacies, the irregularities, which characterize a language like ours. In trying, for example, to manage the preterit of an English verb, he is certain, as indeed is the foreigner, to go wrong. The direction of the errors is often in the transformation of the weak to the strong form; as when "screamed" becomes "scram"; "split" (preterit), "splat" or "splut," and so forth. In other cases the child will convert a strong into a weak form, as when Laura Bridgman, like many another child, would say "I eated," "I seed," and so forth.[11] These differences in the direction of the solecism would probably turn on differences in the word-forms serving as model or precedent which happen to be learned first and to make the strongest impression on the memory.

One thing seems clear here: the child's instinct is to simplify our forms, to get rid of irregularities. This is strikingly illustrated in the use of the heterogeneous assemblage of forms known as the verb "to be." It is really hard on a child to expect him to answer the question, "Are you good now?" by saying, "Yes, I am." He says, of course, "Yes, I are." Perhaps the poor verb "to be" has suffered every kind of violence at the hands of children.[12] Prof. Max Müller somewhere says that children are the purifiers of language. Would it not be well if they could become its simplifiers also, and give us in place of this heap of dissimilar sounds one good decent verb-form?

Other quaint transformations occur when the child begins to combine words, as when he says, "Am't I?" for "Am I not," after the pattern of "Aren't we?" An even finer linguistic stroke than this is "Bettern't you?" for "Had you not better?" where the child was evidently trying to get in the form "Hadn't you," along with the awkward "better," which seemed to belong to the "had," and solved the problem by treating "better" as the verb, and dropping "had" altogether.

A study of these solecisms, which are nearly always amusing, and sometimes daintily pretty, is useful to mothers and young teachers by way of showing how much hard work, how much of real conjectural inference, enters into children's essays in talking. We ought not to wonder that they now and again slip; rather ought we to wonder that with all the intricacies and pitfalls of our language—this applies, of course, with especial force to the motley, irregular English tongue—they slip so rarely. As a matter of fact, the later and more "correct" talk—which is correct just because there is a large memory-stock of particular word-forms, and consequently a much greater scope for pure uninventive imitation—is much less admirable than the early inventive imitation; for this last not only has the quality of originality, but shows the germ of a truly grammatical feeling for the general types or norms of the language, so far as this has become familiar.

The English child is not much troubled by inflections of substantives. The pronouns, however, as every mother knows, are apt to cause much heartburning to the little linguist. The mastery of "I" and "you," "me," "mine," etc., forms an epoch in the development of linguistic faculty and of the power of thought which is so closely correlated with these. Hence it will repay a brief inspection.

As is well known, children begin by designating themselves and those whom they address by names, as when they say, "Baby good," "Mamma come." This is described as speaking "in the third person," yet this is not quite accurate, seeing that there is as yet no distinction of person in the child language.

Later, when the little brain grows more cunning and the tongue nimbler, the child introduces differences of person, and uses the pronominal forms "I" or "me," "you," etc. So far as I can ascertain, most children begin to say "me" before they say "you." Yet I have met with one or two apparent exceptions to this rule. Thus the boy C—— certainly seemed to get hold of the form of the second person before that of the first, and the priority of "you" is attested in another case sent to me. It is desirable to get more observations on this point.

To determine the exact date at which an intelligent use of the first person appears is much less easy than it looks. A child is apt at first to use the forms "me" and "you" mechanically—that is, imitating exactly what another says, and so speaking of another person as "I" and of himself as "you." Here it is evident there is no clear proof of the pronominal form. Allowing for these difficulties, it may be said with some degree of confidence that the great transition from "baby" to "I" is wont to take place in favorable cases early in the third year. Thus among the dates assigned by different observers I find twenty-four months and twenty-five months (cases given by Preyer), between twenty-five and twenty-six (Pollock), twenty-seven months (the boy C——). A lady friend tells me that her boy began to use "I" at twenty-four months. In the case of a certain number of precocious children this point is attained at an earlier date. Thus Preyer quotes a case of a child speaking in the first person at twenty months. Schultze gives a case at nineteen months. A friend of mine, a professor of English literature, whose boy showed great precocity at sentence-building, reports that he used the forms "me" and "I" within the sixteenth month. Preyer's boy, on the other hand, who was evidently somewhat slow in lingual development, first used the forms of the first person "to me' (mir) at the age of twenty-nine months.

The precise way in which these pronominal forms first appear is very curious. Many children use "me" before "I." Preyer's boy appears to have first used the form "to me" (mir). "My," too, is apt to appear among the earliest forms. In such different ways does the child pass to the new and difficult region of pronominal speech.

The meaning of this transition has given rise to much discussion. It is plain, to begin with, that a child can not acquire these forms as he acquires the names "papa," "nurse," by a direct and comparatively mechanical mode of imitation. When he does imitate in this fashion he produces, as we have seen, the absurdity of speaking of himself as "you." Hence during the first year or so of speech he makes no use of these forms. He speaks of himself as "baby" or some equivalent name, others coming down to his level and setting him the example.

The transition seems to be due in part, as I have already pointed out, to a growing self-consciousness, to a clearer singling out of the ego or self as the center of thought and activity, and the understanding of the other "persons" in relation to this center. Not that self-consciousness begins with the use of "I." The child has, no doubt, a rudimentary self-consciousness when he talks about himself as about any other object; yet the use of the forms "I," "me," may be taken to mark the greater precision of the idea of self as not merely one among a group of things, but as something distinct from and opposed to other things—what we call the subject or ego.[13]

While, however, we may set down this exchange of the proper name for the forms "I" and "me" as due to the spontaneous growth of the child's intelligence, it is possible that education exerts its influence too. It is conjecturable that, as a child's intelligence grows, others in speaking to him tend unknowingly to introduce the forms "I" and "you" more frequently. Yet I am disposed to think that the child commonly takes the lead here. However this be, it is clear that growth of intelligence, involving that of interest in others' words, will lead to a closer attention to these pronominal forms as employed by others. In this way the environment works on the growing mind of the child, stimulating it to direct its thoughts to these subtle relations of the "me and not me," "mine and thine." The more intelligent the environment the greater will be the stimulating influence; hence, in part at least, the difference of age when the new style of speech is attained.

The acquirement of these pronominal forms is a slow and irksome business. At first they are introduced hesitatingly and alongside of the proper name, the child, for example, saying sometimes "baby" or "Ilda," sometimes "I" or "me." In some cases, again, the two forms are used at the same time in opposition, as in the delightful form not unknown in older folk's language, "Hilda, my book." The forms "I" and "me," are, moreover, confined at first to a few expressions, as "I am" "I went," and so forth. The dropping of the old forms, as may be seen by a glance at C—— 's lingual jargon and at Preyer's correct diary, is a gradual process.

Quaint solecisms mark the first stages in the use of these pronouns. As in the case of the earlier use of substantives, one and the same form will be used economically for a variety of meanings, as when "me" was used by the boy C—— to do duty for "mine" also, and "us" for "ours." Sometimes new and delightful forms are added, as when the same little experimenter struck out the possessive form "she's."

The perfect and free use of these puzzling forms comes much later. Preyer quotes a case in which a child, Olga, aged four years, would say, "She has made me wet," meaning that she herself had done it. But this perhaps points to that tendency to split up the self into a number of personalities to which reference was made in an earlier chapter.

There is one part of this child's work of learning our language of which I have said hardly anything—viz., the divining of the verbal context, of the meaning we put or try to put into our words. A brief reference to this may well bring this study of childish linguistics to a close.

The least attention to a child in the process of language-learning will show how much of downright hard work goes to the understanding of language. If we are to judge by the effort required, we might say that the child does as much in deciphering his mother tongue as an Oriental scholar in deciphering a system of hieroglyphics. Just think, for example, how many careful comparisons the small child-brain has to carry out—comparisons in the several uses of the word by others in varying circumstances—before he can get anything approaching to a clear idea, answering even to such seemingly simple words as "clean," "old," or "clever." The way in which inquiring children plague us with questions of the form "What does such and such a word mean?" sufficiently shows how much thought-activity goes in the trying to get at meanings. This difficulty, moreover, persists, reappearing in new forms as the child pushes his way onward into the more tangled tracts of the lingual terrane. It is felt, and felt keenly, too, when most of the torments of articulation are over and forgotten. Many of us can remember how certain words haunted us as uncanny forms, into the nature of which we tried hard but in vain to penetrate.

Owing to these difficulties the little learner is always drifting into misunderstanding of words. Such misapprehensions will arise in a passive way by the mere play of association which attaches the word to some features of the particular object or set of circumstances with reference to which the word happens to be used in the child's hearing. In this way, for example, general terms become terribly restricted in range, as when the child supposes that pudding is something made of milk, the church is a building with a spire and a yew tree, that ragged is having no shoes and socks, and so forth. Such a going off the track to side and accidental features seems to be reflected in much of children's quaint misapplications of more difficult words, as when a little boy of six used "consulted" for serious, talking of a thrush as looking consulted, and of people looking "concerned and consulted."

With these losings of the verbal road through associative bypaths may be taken the host of misapprehensions into which children are apt to fall through the ambiguities of our words and expressions, and our short and elliptical modes of speaking. Thus an American child, noting that children were "half price" at a certain show, wanted his mother to get a baby, now that babies were cheap.[14] With this may be compared the following: Jean Ingelow tells us she can well remember how sad she was made by her father telling her one day after dancing her on his knee that he must put her down, as he "had a bone in his leg."[15] Much misapprehension arises, too, from our figurative use of language, which the little listener is apt to interpret in a very literal way. It would be worth knowing what odd renderings the child-brain has given to such expressions as "an upright man," "a fish out of water," and the like.

In addition to these comparatively passive misapprehensions there are others which are the outcome of an intellectual effort, the endeavor to penetrate into the mystery of some new and puzzling words or expression. Many of us have had our special horrors, our bêtes noires among words, which have tormented us for months and years. I remember how I was plagued by the word "wean," the explanation of which was very properly, no doubt, denied me by the authorities, and by what quaint fancies I tried to fill in a meaning.

As with words, so with whole expressions and sayings. What queer renderings the child-mind has given to Scripture language! Mr. James Payne tells us that he knew a boy who for years substituted for the words "Hallowed be thy name," "Harold be thy name."[16] In this and similar cases it is not, as might be supposed, defective hearing—children hear words, as a rule, with great exactness. It is the impulse to give a familiar and significant rendering to what is strange and meaningless.[17] A friend of mine could recall that when a boy he was accustomed, on hearing the passage, "If I say peradventure the darkness," etc., to insert a pause after "peradventure," apprehending the passage in this wise: "If I say 'Peradventure!' the darkness is." In this way he turned the mysterious "peradventure" into a mystic "Open Sesame," and added a fine touch of romantic color to the passage. My friend's daughter tells me that on hearing the passage "shewing his mercy unto the thousands and visiting the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation," she construed the strange word "generation" to mean an immense number like billions, and was thus led to trouble herself about God's seeming to be more cruel than kind.

In some cases, too, where the language is simple enough a child's brain will find our meaning unsuitable and follow a line of interpretation of its own. Mr. Canton relates that his little girl, who knew the lines in Strumpelpeter—

"The doctor came and shook his head,
And gave him nasty physic too"—

was told that she would catch a cold, and that she at once replied, "And will the doctor come and shook my head? "[18] It was so much more natural to suppose that when the doctor came and did something this was done on the person of the patient.

There is something of this same desire to get behind words in children's word-play, as we call it, their discovery of odd affinities of verbal sound, and their punning. Though, no doubt, this contains a genuine element of childish fun, it betokens a more serious trait also, a deep interest in word-sounds as such, and a curiosity about their origin and purpose. It is difficult for grown-up people to go back in thought to the attitude of the child-mind toward verbal sounds. Just as children show "the innocence of the eye" in seeing the colors of objects as they are and not as our habits of interpretation tend to make them, so they show an innocence of the ear, catching the intrinsic sensuous qualities of a word or a group of words, in a way which has become impossible for us.

This half-playful, half-serious scrutiny of word-sounds leads to the attempt to find by analysis and analogy a familiar meaning in strange words. For example, a little boy. about four years old heard his mother speak of nurse's "neuralgia," from which she had been suffering some time. He therefore exclaimed, "I don't think it's neuralgia, I call it old ralgia." A child called his doll "Shakespeare," because its spearlike legs could be shaken. Another child explained the "master" which he prefixed to his name by saying he was master of his dog. A little girl in her third year called anchovies "ham-chovies," mermaid "worm-maid," whirlwind "world-wind," gnomes "no-mans" (Un-menschen), seeming to take pleasure in imparting some familiar element into the strange jumble of word-sound that beset her ear.

This quasi-punning transformation of words is curiously like what may be called folk-derivation, when a word is altered so as to be made to appear significant and suitable for its purpose, as in the oft-quoted form "beef-eater" (corruption of buffetier, from buffet, sideboard), and in the form "crayfish" (from French écrevisse or O. H. German Krebiz), where the attempt to suit the form to the thing is still more apparent.The other form of the word, "crawfish," seems a still more ingenious example of folk etymology. When, for example, a boy calls a holiday a "hollorday," because it is a day "to hollo in," we may say that he is reflecting the process by which peoples alter the forms of words, giving them a perfectly fanciful etymology, so as to make them seem to fit their objects. Some children carry out such transformation and invention of derivation on a large scale, often resorting to pretty myth, as when the butterflies are said to make butter or to eat butter, grasshoppers to give grass, honeysuckles to yield all the honey, and so forth.[19]

A child will even go further, and, prying into the forms of gender, create an explanatory myth which may dimly reflect the ancient myths of peoples which lay at the root of these distinctions of gender. Thus a little boy, aged five years and three months, who had learned German and Italian, as well as English, was much troubled about the gender of the sun and moon. So he set about myth-making on this wise: "I suppose people[20] think the sun is the husband, the moon is the wife, and all the stars the little children, and Jupiter the maid."

One other characteristic feature in the child's attitude toward words must be touched on, because it is, in a manner, the opposite of the impulse to tamper with words just dealt with. A child is a great stickler for accuracy in the repetition of all familiar word-forms. The zeal of a child in correcting others' language, and the comical errors he will now and again fall into in exercising his pedagogic function, are well known to parents. Sometimes he shows himself the most absurd of pedants. "Shall I read to you out of this book, baby?" asked a mother of her boy, about two years and a half old. "No," replied the infant, "not out of dot book, but somepy inside of it." The same little stickler for verbal accuracy, when his nurse asked him, "Are you going to build your bricks, baby?" replied solemnly, "We don't build bricks, we make them and then build with them." In the notes on the boy C—— we find an example of how jealously the child-mind insists on the ipsissima verba in the recounting of his familiar stories.

I have in this essay confined myself to some of the more common and elementary features of the child's linguistic experience. Others present themselves when the reading stage is reached, and the new, strange, stupid-looking word-symbol on the printed page has to do duty for the living sound, which for the child, as we have seen, seems to belong to the object and to share in its life. But this subject, tempting as it is, must be left. And the same must be said of these special difficulties and problems which arise for the child-mind when two or more languages are spoken. This is a branch of child-linguistics which, so far as I know, has never been explored.

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  1. For lists of vocabularies and analysis of these compositions see Preyer, op. cit., p. 361. Tracy, Psychology of Childhood, p. 76 ff.
  2. Cf. Romanes, op. cit., p. 296 ff.
  3. See Preyer, op. cit., p. 361; Romanes, op. cit., p. 296 ff.
  4. Quoted by Compayré, L'Evolution intellectuelle et morale de l'Enfant, p. '206.
  5. Notes on the Development of a Child, p. 84.
  6. Canton, The Invisible Playmate, p. 32; who adds that this exactly answers to the form "Good, my lord!"
  7. See Romanes, op. cit., p. 116 f, where other examples may be found.
  8. The languages of savages appear to differ like those of civilized races in respect of order, the succession substantive, verb, attributive, as in "John is good," appearing alongside of the inverse—e. g., "Good is John," See article L'Importance des Langues Sauvages, Revue Philosophique, 1894, p. 465 ff.
  9. A curious example of negative antithesis is given by Perez, op. cit., p. 196. On other analogies between the syntax of children and deaf-mutes, see Compayré, op. cit., p. 251 f.
  10. On Intelligence, part i, book i, chaps, ii, vi.
  11. The same double tendency from weak to strong forms, and vice versa, see in the list of transformed past participles given by Preyer, op. cit., p. 360.
  12. See Preyer's account of a German child's liberties with the same verb where we find gebisst, binnst, and other odd forms, op. cit., p. 438.
  13. Cf. Study V, January number of this magazine, p. 351.
  14. Worcester collection, p. 21.
  15. Cf. the account Goltz gives of the anxiety he felt as a child on hearing that his uvula (Zapfen) had fallen down, op. cit., p. 261.
  16. In The Illustrated London News, June 30, 1894.
  17. Of course, defective auditory apprehension may assist in these cases. Goltz gives an example from his own childhood. He took the words "Namen nennen Dich nicht" to be "Namen nenne Dich nicht," and was sorely puzzled at the idea of bidding a name not to name itself.
  18. The Invisible Playmate, p. 35.
  19. These last are taken from a good list of children's punnings in Dr. Stanley Hall's article, The Workings of Children's Minds.
  20. This is, I take it, the majority—viz., Italians and English.