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Les Âges de la vie en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle

Serge Soupel

Deuxième partie. Aspects littéraires

“Baby-Talk”: or the Discourses of Children and Childhood in Eighteenth-Century Prose and Verse texts

Norman Simms

Texte intégral

Abhorred slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore was thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison.
Shakespeare, The Tempest 1.1.352-62

1One of the distinguishing features of Romantic discourses in England at the end of the eighteenth century is the focus on and pretension of listening to the voices of children. We see this especially in writers like Blake and Wordsworth and credit their interest in the childlike and the naive to the ideology of Romanticism. But are there similar concerns earlier in the century, during the period when rationality and Enlightenment dominated?

2There are two essential questions here. In the first, can we find in novels (and novelistic discourse in general) an attempt to create a specific mode of speaking for and to children, such as that which starts to become evident for genders, classes, and nationalities? In other words, does childhood, specifically that period in which language is being learned, emerge as a test-case for the distinguishing of personality which will in due course become evident for various older ages of the individual? This is a problem which runs very close to, and often overlaps with, the discourses of education in which the adult adjusts his or her own speech to what are perceived to be the listening and comprehension abilities of the child or the primitive or the degraded. Novelists begin to ground their characters’ development in early childhood experiences and education, so that, whether overtly aware of or engaged in the theoretical discourses, they nevertheless participate in them through their fictions.

3In the second question, can we locate within the condescending “namby-pamby” verse written for children some indications of understanding of the particular needs of children in language-acquisition; and, as a corollary, are there markers of ethnographic-anthropological interest in the way children speak as analogues to the condition of peoples thought of as fixed within “the childhood of the race”? Here the question becomes more philosophical, and even touches on the scientific.

  • 1 Hans Aarsleff, “An Outline of Language-Origins Theory Since the Renaissance”, Origins and Evolutio (...)

4Hans Aarsleff sees the trajectory of discussions of language origins from the seventeenth through to the close of the eighteenth centuries as arching from a base in divine origins, a position punctuated by the two fables in Genesis which record Adam’s naming of animals in the Garden of Eden and the breaking apart of the original natural language in the contentions induced by God at the Tower of Babel, across a curve of debate as to whether or not there are innate ideas and words to express them, and coming to ground again in the genetic and comparative studies of the Romantic and post Romantic linguists1.

  • 2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Parts One and Two, ed. Herbert W. Schneider (1653; Indianapolis, New Yor (...)

5Hobbes, in the fourth chapter of Part I of Leviathan distinguishes between the origins of printing, letters and speech in reverse historical order, and thus grounds his progressive development of human verbal communications on the traditional premises of divine origins: that God is the first “author” of speech, and that he “instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight2. Once language as a divine System of names was given, the diversity of human languages was created in the degeneration of speech which centred on the Tower of Babel, this second Fall exacerbating the savage State of human society (Leviathan 38). To be brief, Hobbes teaches that language progresses through three modes of articulation but that it always remains a complete System of nomination and signification equivalent to the logical processes of the mind, and to be evaluated by how, more or less, it expresses those logical properties of the mind, properties which are most perfected in the science of geometry (Leviathan 38 ff.). It would then be that the child in the process of learning to speak is learning the names of things and then their logical relationships. Hobbes’ only examples are of the man born deaf and dumb who cannot reason beyond recognition of the individual objects until he has words (that is, names for things) and of the peoples who lived before there were words for numbers and thus who could not reason beyond specifics.

6Though he wrote in the mid-eighteenth century, Giambattista Vico belongs to the mentality of the Italian seventeenth-century, and his curious mind therefore reveals in The New Science a bridge between the rationalistic philosophies of the Enlightenment and the Romantic enthusiasms of the late eighteenth century. His views on language origins, for instance, seek to render Hobbes’ tough position as though it were already part of a systematic science of anthropology and to prefigure in his own insistence on the bed-rock value of mythology and ancient epic the dynamic theories of Herder, which we will examine soon.

7For Vico, human beings begin to have a language in an archaic period of muteness, that is, an original language of signs, which he identifies with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Both in the symbolic use of things and in the symbolic gestures of these early peoples, language belongs not to all members of primitive society but only to specialists and also only in sacred times, that is, in religious ceremonies. Although he thus confuses speech with written language, Vico nevertheless breaks out of several misconceptions which blocked proper developments in linguistics during the Renaissance. Language is now seen to be a product of the human mind, a mind which, like the language which articulates it, grows and develops, is subject to change under both natural and historical circumstances, and thus is open to scientific investigation through philology, anthropology, and even physiology.

8Moreover, Vico follows his putative Egyptian model in the two further major eras of language development following that of mute signs. In the second period, that of heroic poetry, it is precisely the poverty of language in abstractions that generates the richness of Homer and his fellow epic singers: human thought emerges through a new figurative inventiveness, a transformation of specific, concrete names and exclamations into the characters, events, and rhetoric of the heroic mode. This language, now become fully verbal, nevertheless is essentially poetry, that is, an emotional and expressive form of rhythmic speech.

  • 3 Giambattista Vico, The New Science, translated from the third edition (1744) by Thomas Goodard Ber (...)

9Important for our concerns is Vico’s axiom “that in the world’s childhood men were by nature sublime poets”3. He can thus draw analogies from his experience and observation of childhood, and apply such analogies at once to the originary periods of the race and to the data adduced by travellers and explorers in contact with contemporary so-called savage peoples. We thus find a string of further axioms, such as:

In children memory is most vigorous, and imagination is therefore excessively vivid, for imagination is nothing but extended or compounded memory. This axiom is the principle of the expressiveness of the poetic images that the world formed in its first childhood. (Vico 33)

10Other axioms develop the idea into more specific features of the essential poetic mode of primary verbal language, as in the following:

Languages must have begun with monosyllables, as in the present abundance of articulated words into which children are now born they begin with monosyllables in spite of the fact that in them the fibers of the organ necessary to articulate speech are very flexible. (Vico 35)

11In Vico’s third period, the era of epistolary language, prose is invented, philosophy developed, and ordinary, profane, and discursive speech made possible. The literate vulgar languages are thus at once an advance, intellectually, over the previous modes of communication and a form of degeneration from the primitive intensity, power, and sublimity of the original language. Communications across the distances of time and space become available, as language is no longer dependent upon the emotions of the social intercourse of speech, and in fact this new developed language does not necessitate the voice or a speaker at all.

12Again, for our purposes, the important point that Vico makes here is that, while children naturally speak in a language that approximates the poetry of the second period once they have come through the essentially mute and gesturing phase of the first, they must be taught to speak and write in the epistolary vulgar languages. He remarks, for instance, “we observe children expressing nouns and particles but leaving verbs to be understood”. The reason is that the next stage of development requires a ratiocination that does not come naturally.

For nouns awaken ideas which leave firm traces; particles, signifying modifications, do the same; but verbs signify motions, which involve past and future, which are measured from the indivisible present, which even philosophers find very hard to understand. (Vico 109)

13Vico then calls in the corroborating evidence of brain-damaged men, the feebleminded and women to show the natural tendency of language to resist this last rise into philosophical abstractions and logical coherence (109-11).

  • 4 Nurse Lovechild, ed. Tommy Thumb's Song Book for All Utile Masters and Misses to Be Sung to Them b (...)

14If we turn to an author called Nurse Lovechild publishing in the 1770s and whose original sources may be a set of books under similar titles printed in the late 1740s, we find an attempt to create a book fit for the capacities of infants. The latest versions are clearly suffused with a strong moralistic tone, since as the rubric on the frontis piece claims “Every pretty moral Tale, / Should o’er the infant Mind prevail”, but the general tenor of the collection has a different agenda, one that links with contemporary eighteenth-century theories of language4.

15The book begins with a letter from a former employer who praises the Nurse’s undertaking and gives certain instructions, such a volume requiring approval from the upperclasses. This anonymous Lady writes:

And I cannot but approve, so I recommend this your laudable Design, of compiling a Collection of Songs, so fit for the Capacities of Infants, both in Words and Tunes, by which they are often lull’d to Rest, when cross, and in great Pain.

16The Lady goes on to warn the Nurse not to sing too loudly, for fear of frightening the child, and instructs in a method of making infants lose their fear of animals and their sounds. She also gives a warning in not engaging in too many jerking motions while dancing or exercising the children.

17Then the text opens with a section entitled:

18Nurse Lovejoy explains her method as both a diversion for children and a pleasure for parents and nurses to observe “the Progress, and surprising Difference in the early Sense of their Children”. The child will be shown the animal, and then the Sound it makes will follow. Thus:

Ask which is the DOG? Then point to it, then ask what the Dog says, then say,
And so to the rest, by which Means, the Child in a Time, will be able to do the same itself.

  • 5 JG. Herder on Social and Political Culture, trans. and ed., F.M. Barnard (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, (...)

19In other words, the child is taught to speak, to think, to read by first going through the procedure of learning as memorial acts of imitating animal sounds, with the names of the beasts implicitly given as the primary knowledge. This is an attempt to regain the status of Adam in the Garden of Eden who, in the divine version of language origins, creates under God’s direction, the original natural language. It more accurately foreshadows the remarks made by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), that “Parents never teach their children language without the concurrent inventive activity of the child; the former only draw the children s attention to the differences among objects by means of certain word syllables, in this way promoting and facilitating, but not substituting speech for the use of reason...,”5

20In the Lovejoy method, children are thus prepared for speaking in the practice of monosyllabic animal noises, for thinking in the training of their memory to associate names, sounds, and images of the animals, and for reading in the focus of attention of the book held before them, the sounds made in association with the images they are to recognize, and the rhythms of the voice and motions of the nurse reading to them. All this, while mostly implicit in Nurse Lovejoy’s directions, nevertheless conforms to more than a century of discussion and debate on the origins and nature of language.

21The poems collected in Tommy Thumb’s Song Book are the familiar core of any modem collection of English nursery rhymes. They are heavy on the rhythm, simple in language, and contain many nonsense words or syllables, such as “High Diddle Diddle, / A Cat and a Fiddle” or “Round about, round about, / Magotty Pye”.

22Poems specifically written for children outside a specifically religious, or liturgical frame in the early eighteenth century tend to lack the heavy-handed moralizing that arises later in the century, yet there is the same concern for a simplicity that in its worst form is called “Namby-Pamby” after Ambrose Philips. What this simplicity consists of are repeated short words, close rhymes in short lines, and a syntax that seems to stress nouns and adjectives over complex verbal patterns and subordinated phrases and clauses. Put otherwise, for all the sense of condescension and preciousness in such verse, there is an appeal, as it were, to the concept of an original and natural language which children respond to, just as primitive or savage men and women were supposed to have invented or discovered language through such simplistic originary efforts. The point is made strikingly some thirty years later in Berlin by J.G. Herder, who there makes what must be the definitive statement against innatism and the first major statement for a Creative human development of language.

23Herder, in his prize-winning essay “On the Origin of Language” for the Berlin Academy in 1770, argues that there is no break between the first noises made in attempting language and the emergence of a more systematic and rational tongue, since the human child, as well as the primitive, is always the same, a human being. While the natural sounds of the pre-linguistic period are still to be found in later language, they are in themselves not the basis of artificial speech. In the very act of repeating sounds as symbolic representations of names and ideas, according to Herder, the child and the primitive prove themselves to be human, to be possessors of an inherent faculty of the mind for reflective thought; and this faculty needs only to be exercised to be made operative and developed into refinement.

24Hence, one of the most famous or notorious of Philips’ poems to children will prove to be less vacuous than often thought, not because the poet was making a profound original statement but because he was operating within a discourse that already had problematized as intellectually valid the propositions he was making:

To Miss Charlotte Pultney in her
Mother’s Arms-May 1, 1724

Timely blossom, infant fair,
Fondling of a happy pair,
Every morn, and every night,
Their solicitous delight,

25The image of the infant is one which depicts a babe in arms, living in that pre-language period of existence when the original sounds and uncontrolled motions mark the conjunction of primitive humanity and the individual before entering. Philips’ goes on to depict a Rousseauistic or perhaps more accurately Shaftsburian good-natured child filled with natural desires to please her parents.

Sleeping, waking, still at ease,
Pleasing, without skill to please,
Little gossip, blithe and hale,
Tattling many a broken tale,
Singing many a tuneless song,
Lavish of a heedless tongue,
Simple maiden, void of art,
Babbling out the very heart,
Yet abandon’d to thy will,
Yet imagining no ill,
Yet too innocent to blush,

26This child on the verge of language is speaking in the pre-verbal level, just as it sings before it has mastered rhythmic speech, this absence of all art marking it out as the innocent, virtually pre-lapsarian avatar of Adam about to be called upon to give names to all the animals in Eden. The child is at the animal-level itself, compared to a baby bird in the nest:

Like the linet in the bush,
To the Mother-linnet’s note
Moduling her slender throat,
Chirping forth thy pretty joys,
Wanton in the change of toys,
Like the linnet green, in May,
Fliting to each bloomy spray,
Wearied then, and glad of rest,
Like the linnet in the nest.

27The last part of the poem then swerves to a moral lesson, one in which the child is warned that the time of innocence is about to end with the advent of both language and consciousness, which bring responsibilities to life. But the poet also offers a consolation to the child, a projection forward to the time when she herself will hold in her arms another infant, her own baby, and that image of primal innocence will be worth all of the burdens taken on as a social being.

This thy present happy lot,
This, in time, will be forgot:
Other pleasures, other cares,
Ever-busy time prepares;
And thou shalt in thy daughter see,
This picture, once, resembled thee.

28The novelists of the period do not specifically set out to investigate or test the theories of the men of science, but we do find that certain general principles in the discourses of scientific and philosophical enquiry carry over into the narratives of the eighteenth century. It will be seen, after a brief sampling of such narratives, that the poets seem more alert to the sensitivities of baby-talk and thus a closer affinity to the Romantic notions that will dominate the close of the century and the post-French Revolutionary European world.

29In two novels published in 1722 Daniel Defoe looks at early childhood experiences. In both books, the first person narrators recollect difficult, yet formative, periods of their lives. Defoe thus represents one of the earliest attempts to depict in fiction childhood as a key component of a dynamic character’s Personal development.

  • 6 Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. ed. G. A. Starr (1722; (...)

30Moll Flanders tells her readers that her mother was a convicted felon who, within half a year of her birth, was transported to the colonies, leaving her infant daughter “in bad Hands you may be sure”6. While the grown Moll cannot recall all the details, she knows that “I had no Parish to have recourse to for my Nourishment in my Infancy, nor can I give the least Account how I was kept alive; other, than that as I have been told, some Relation of my Mothers took me away for a while as a Nurse, but at whose Expence, or by whose Direction I known nothing at all of it”(Moll 8-9).

31After this period of nursing, Moll was taken among Gypsies, “or Egyptians”, but this was “a very little while”. However, she has a personal memory of “being taken up by some of the Parish Officers of Colchester”. This event places Moll at some point when she has both language and memory, for she tells the reader, “I have a Notion in my Head, that I left them [the Gypsies] there” and that she told the parish officials “I would not go any further with them (Moll 9). This occurred, we are told, when she was “not above three Years old”.

32At that age she is fostered to a woman fallen on to bad times who received a small amount of money for her troubles, and who, in addition, ran a “little School, which she kept to teach Children to Read and to Work” (Moll 9). Moll continued with that woman, attending her school, until she was eight years old. The first scene in the novel with developed dialogue focuses on the day eight year old Moll weeps and begs not to be sent out to service. Moll’s speech, as she recalls it in adulthood, displays the characteristics of innocence matched with determined individuality, but there is no attempt to render the speech childish other than in the relative simplicity of the syntax. Thus, asked why she is crying, the little girl answers, “because they will take me away... and put me to Service, and I can’t Work HouseWork” (Moll 10). Then Moll protests further, when told that she will be instructed in the required duties: “and if I can’t do it, they will Beat me, and the Maids will Beat me to make me do great Work, and I am but a little Girl, and I can’t do it”.

33Here the nature of the child’s speech is not only in simple and short units, but in the repetitions. While this shows a certain sensitivity on Defoe’s part to the limitations of a child’s speech patterns, the specific language is no different in vocabulary or syntax than that of adults. What makes it most childlike, however, is the tone, a combination of naive obstinacy and hopelessness, and in the contextualized accompaniment of tears and silence. For the narrator goes on, “and then I cry’d again, till I could not speak any more to her” (Moll 11). That contextualizing continues in the way adults respond to Moll’s protestations. In other words, how the foster mother speaks to Moll also indicates the childishness of the girl’s speech. There is, above all, condescension, as when the woman first addresses Moll as “Thou foolish Child... thou art always Crying” (Moll 10). There is above all a patronizing attitude in the woman’s brushing aside of Moll’s worries, when she says: “well Child... but tho’ you can’t Work House-Work, as you call it, you will learn it in time, and they won’t put you to hard Things at first” (Moll 11). Further protests make the old woman exclaim, “is the Girl mad?” And then “my good Motherly Nurse” asks her, “what? would you be a Gentlewoman?” To that last rhetorical remark, spoken as the first exclamation for effect, as though to a third party who should hear the absurdity of the child’s point of view, little Moll actually replies, “Yes... and cry’d heartily, till I roar’d out again” (Moll 11). The conversation continues with the “old Gentlewoman” laughing and “Gibing at me”.

34So far as this novel goes, the active and self-conscious life of Moll begins only after she has gained a knowledge of the language when she can protest at being carried about by the Gypsies, and this is dated at a point before she is three years old. She is then able to convey her unhappiness to the Gypsies and to claim refuge from the parish officers of Colchester. However, there are no words actually put into her mouth until she is eight years old, and at that point she is allowed to speak in grammatically simple and strong but naive arguments. Such speech is seen as “cute”, but also laughed at because, had it been spoken by an adult, it would mark out the speaker as mad. As Moll herself evaluates the situation from a position of reflective adulthood, she remarks:

I HAD no Policy in all this, you may easily see it was all Nature, but it was joyn’d with so much Innocence, and much Passion, That in short, it set the good Motherly Creature a weeping too, and she cry’d at last as fast as I did, and then took me, and led me out of the teaching Room; come says she, you shan’t go to Service, you shall live with me, and this pacify’d me for the present. (Moll 12)

35What is interesting here is the way Moll separates Innocence from Nature and Passion. They are related but not equivalent words, all in opposition to “Policy” or a rational motivation. It is by the child’s innocence or naivete, that is, unfamiliarity with complexities of the world, that she can speak naturally, which means with rhetorical cunning or devious obliquities to win concessions from the old woman. Such a speech carries with it the passion of the child, who cannot hide her feelings, and cannot control her mode of address in order to shape the response of the listener.

  • 7 Daniel Defoe, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque Commonly Call’d (...)

36The second character Defoe presented in 1722, Col. Jack, also recollects childhood memories. He tells us that the account of his infancy is part of the “oral Tradition” he has picked up subsequently. Thus “my Nurse told me my Mother was a Gentlewoman, that my Father was a Man of Quality, and she (my Nurse) had a good piece of Money given her to take me off his Hands, and deliver him and my Mother from the Importunities that usually attend the Misfortune, of having a Child to keep that should not be seen or heard of’7. Other parts of this oral tradition concern the father’s insistence that the boy be brought up to know his father was a gentleman, and this will serve to give the narrator impetus to behave in particular ways quite at variance with what seems his status in life through the rest of the novel.

37Meanwhile, our concern is with the way in which the novel describes the earliest attempts to communicate with language that Defoe is able to reproduce. The nurse brings Jack (or John, as he is more formally known) up along with another “Son of shame”. In fact, the woman has three boys to bring up — the narrator, the second bastard, and her own son — all of whom are named John. To distinguish them, she began to call them Captain, Colonel, and plain Jack. This identity confusion brings on the narrator’s first crisis. He complains to his foster mother that he wants to be called Captain, not the other boy. But she explains that, since he was born of a gentleman, he ought to hold a rank above that of Captain, namely, Colonel. While the narrator’s speech is given only in indirect discourse, the nurse’s language comes to us direct, and it is thus only the contextualizing discourse that generates the sense of the boy’s childishness.

I WAS provok’d at having this Boy call’d Captain, and I cried and told my Nurse I would be call’s Captain, for she told me I was a Gentleman, and I would be a Captain, that I would: The good Woman to keep the Peace, told me ay, ay, for I should be a Colonel, and that was a great deal better than a Captain; for my Dear, says she, every Tarpawlin if he gets but to be a Lieutenant of a Press-Smack is call’d Captain, but Colonels are Soldiers, and none but Gentlemen are ever made Colonels.... (4)

38It is possible to catch some of the rhythms of childish speech, such as we found in Moll Flanders, in the repetitions of what is reported indirectly of Jack’s protests. However, there is no indication of what age this conversation occurs at. It would seem, by analogy with Moll, however, that Jack would be about eight here. In other words, his period of language acquisition has already passed, an event we see emerging as dated to three years old. Jack is here presented as beginning his adventures, albeit at a childish stage.

  • 8 James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman; new ed., J.D. Fleeman (1791; London, Oxford, New (...)

39We can see something similar later in the century when James Boswell records the early life of his mentor Samuel Johnson. Boswell, when introducing his account of Dr Johnson’s childhood, writes, “In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting”8. He then offers an anecdote about the great man at three years of age — the time of language acquisition or at least the first public demonstrations of verbal communication. In 1712, as reported in a letter from Miss Mary Adye of Lichfield, when the young Johnson is brought to the local cathedral to hear Dr. Secheverel preach, a Mr. Hammond asks the father why he has carried “such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a croud”. The elder Johnson replies that “it was impossible to keep him at home; for, young as he was, he believed he had caught the publick spirit and zeal for Secheverel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him” (Boswell 29). While there is no speech given here, young Sam Johnson is apparently able to communicate his wishes to his father in terms that demonstrate a capacity to use language both for speaking and listening in public.

40There is not much in Boswell that can be classified as the baby-talk of Johnson. But two cases might be cited. In one still listed for 1712, and again in the crucial third year of his life, “When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, ‘Sam, you must get this by heart’. She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. ‘What’s the matter?’ said she. ‘I can say it’, he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it over more than twice” (Boswell 30). Here, at the same time that the boy is considered an infant and carried into the church to hear a famous preacher, he is also credited with the ability to read. This certainly marks out the lad as unusual, but the anecdote confirms the period as one significant in the development of language and self-consciousness.

41The next anecdote reported by Boswell, taken from Hester Lynch Piozzi’s memoirs, again takes place in Johnson’s third year and is given as a further example “of his infant precocity”, although Johnson himself denies the veracity of the narrative. The story goes that he accidentally trod upon and killed a newborn duckling, whereupon “he dictated to his mother the following epitaph:

Here lies good master duck,
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on;
If it had liv’d, it had been, good luck,
For then we’d had an odd one. (Boswell 30)

42Boswell considers this composition beyond the capacities of a three year old child “without an extension of its faculties by immediate inspiration”. While Johnson’s step-daughter, Lucy Porter, maintains the truth of the anecdote, claiming she heard it from his mother, he himself said his father had composed it and tried to pass it off as the child’s. In a note to this incident, Boswell cites Miss Seward, who believed:

These infant numbers contain the seeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character, of that poetick talent which afterwards bore such rich and plentiful fruits; for excepting his orthographick Works, every thing which Dr. Johnson wrote was Poetry, whose essence consists not in numbers, or in jingle, but in the strength sand glow of a fancy, to which all the stores of nature and of art stand in prompt administration; and in an eloquence which conveys their blended illustrations in a language “more tuneable than needs or rhyme or verse to add more harmony. (Boswell 31n1)

43Boswell rejects Miss Seward’s explanation as mere fancy based on a historical fiction. Nevertheless, what it reveals is a view of poetry which allows for the child’s words to already have in small the whole of the mature poet’s vision and technique. In that sense, a rendering of baby-talk does more than present a cute image of precocious behaviour; it also shows the essential qualities of mature language and culture.

44As with the earlier writers we have looked it, with Boswell we can see that if the thinkers of the Enlightenment are not prepared to grant to baby-talk the superlatives the Romantic period would, nevertheless they do see in this first effort at speech a mark of emergent reason and civilization.

45Somewhat older than the three year olds looked at above are the pubescent and sub-pubescent girls who people Sarah Fielding’s 1749 The Governess, or Little Female Academy. Whilst they are quite articulate and construct complex sentences in their speech, they do remark, in a series of recollections cum confessions, about what they can recall of their life before school, which means accounts of their experiences from about two to six or seven years of age. Thus, though the actual speech — lexicon and patterning — is not rendered for this early period of childhood, there are remarks which give insight into the supposed mental and linguistic capacities of the girls.

  • 9 Sarah Fielding, The Governess, or Little Female Academy, ed. Mary Cadogan (1749; London and New Yo (...)

46Jenny Peace, aged fourteen, recalls the squabbles she had with her brother before they were seven, the age she was sent to school. Her mother watched over “the opening of our Minds” and took “great Care to instruct us in what manner to make the best Use of the Knowledge we attained”. As they begin to read, the children have the texts explained by their mother. “When we were capable of thinking, we made it so much a Rule to obey our Parent, the Moment she signified her Pleasure, that by that means we avoided many Accidents and Misfortunes...”9 This kind of intrusive parenting, which involves monitoring of the children’s readings and supervision of their comprehension, indicates a sense of awareness to the emergent understanding of the brother and sister. This would seem to follow Hobbes’ notion, written a hundred years before, of a progress from speech to reading accompanying and instigating a movement from passive learning of names to a capacity for logical thinking.

47Not quite twelve years old, Sukey Jennet speaks next, and recalls when she was four, belng unable to recollect earlier memories of her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage. Her confessional deals with being spoiled excessively by a nurse. The important point for us, however, is the timing of her faculty to remember which seems to coincide with the age at which Enlightenment theorists see speech and therefore self-consciousness emerging.

48Lucy Sly, at eleven, however, seems to have a kind of memory going back to when she was two. But the confessional she makes is ambiguous on this point: “From the time I was Two Years old, (said Miss Lucy) my Mamma was so sickly, that she was unable to take any great Care of me herself: And I was left to the Care of a Governess, who made it her Study to bring me to do what she had a mind to have done, without troubling her Head what induced me so to do” (The Governess 53). The memory seems to be a continuous one, from two to school age, and shows how the little girl “knew by her Tone of Voice, and her Manner of speaking” that she was being indulged by the servant and needed to learn to deceive her elders In order to remain in favour. Sarah Fielding thus grants to the young child the ability to pick up extra-verbal linguistic cues and to manipulate her own speech and behaviour for strategic purposes, although the moralistic purposes of the novel itself seem to override any particular psychological insights.

49The closest Fielding comes to giving direct discourse to the children in their recollections, rather than at the time of the novel proper, when they are at school, comes when Jenny, whom we discussed first, speaks of an episode when she was six years old. A raree show or puppet theatre came to town. Jenny wanted to see it very much but also wanted to seem more grown-up by pretending not to want to see it, “to boast of my own great Sense, in that I was above such Trifles”. The conversation with her mother ensues:

When my Mamma asked me, Why I would not see the Show, when she had given me Leave? I drew up my Head, and said, Indeed I did not like Raree-Shows: That I had been reading; and I thought that much more worth my while, than to lose my time at such foolish Entertainments. My Mamma, who saw the Cause of my refusing this Amusement was only a Pretence of being wise, laughed and said, she herself had seen it, and it was really very comical and diverting. On hearing this, I was heartily vexed to think I had denied myself a Pleasure, which I fansied was beneath me, when I found even my Mamma was not above seeing it. (The Governess 63)

50Aside from showing Sarah Fielding’s concern for allowing children to have fun and enjoy their childish imaginations, the passage shows a young girl caught out in an obvious charade, one whose knowledge is limited to superficial distinctions between her instinctive awareness of self and her grasp of a social character or role she wishes to display. What is silently inherent in Jenny’s narrative is the capacity of her mother to see beyond her words, that is, to read her remarks contextually, so that language consists in more than the communication of nominal sense; through tone, body language, and critical interpretation the signification of the child’s are properly understood.

51Thus, although the poets, even when writing in a namby-pamby style, for children or about them, come close to representing an imitation of what is argued by theorists as a natural language in simplicity and rhythm, it is actually in the novelists that the child’s speech—baby-talk, if you will—begins to appear as both a revelation of the character’s personality and as a starting point for his or her development as a rational, reflective being.


1 Hans Aarsleff, “An Outline of Language-Origins Theory Since the Renaissance”, Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech, eds. Horst B. Steklis, Stevan R. Hamad, and Jane Lancaster (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1976: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences No280) 4-13.

2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Parts One and Two, ed. Herbert W. Schneider (1653; Indianapolis, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958) 37.

3 Giambattista Vico, The New Science, translated from the third edition (1744) by Thomas Goodard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Garden City: Anchor, Doubleday, 1961) 29.

4 Nurse Lovechild, ed. Tommy Thumb's Song Book for All Utile Masters and Misses to Be Sung to Them by Their Nurses, until They Can Sing Themselves (Worcester, 1788; repr. New York: Melcher, 1946).

5 JG. Herder on Social and Political Culture, trans. and ed., F.M. Barnard (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969) 138.

6 Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. ed. G. A. Starr (1722; Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1971) 8.

7 Daniel Defoe, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque Commonly Call’d Col. Jack, ed. Samuel Holt Monk (1722; London, Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 1970) 3.

8 James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman; new ed., J.D. Fleeman (1791; London, Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 1970) 29.

9 Sarah Fielding, The Governess, or Little Female Academy, ed. Mary Cadogan (1749; London and New York: Pandora, 1987) 14.

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