Monday, December 1, 2008

Baby's Magic Incantations

Childhood words are interesting to contemplate. “The first ‘words’ of a baby are not words at all,” suggests professor Selma H. Fraiberg, “but magic incantations, sounds uttered for pleasure and employed indiscriminately to bring about a desired event.” A one-year-old baby will discover that “the syllable ‘mama,’ repeated several times if necessary, will magically cause the appearance of the invaluable woman who ministers to all needs and guards him against all evil. He doesn’t know just how this happens, but he attributes this to his own magic powers” (The Magic Years, 1996). This is why Fraiberg contends that “language originates in magic.” In addition to embodying magical expectations, a baby’s incantations are characterized by surprise and excitement, two crucial qualities for magic words.

As David Abram explains, “We do not, as children, first enter into language by consciously studying the formalities of syntax and grammar or by memorizing the dictionary definitions of words, but rather by actively making sounds—by crying in pain and laughing in joy, by squealing and babbling and playfully mimicking the surrounding soundscape, gradually entering through such mimicry into the specific melodies of the local language, our resonant bodies slowly coming to echo the inflections and accents common to our locale and community. We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily. We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance—the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body—that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us” (The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996).

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