Say What?!

Although I grew up outside of Chicago, I’ve spent the last decade split between the East and West Coasts. Now, after 5 years in Los Angeles, my husband and I are settling into life as Michiganders. Aside from the longer days and lower cost of living, the biggest differences I’ve noticed are linguistic. People speak differently here, and for me it’s like coming home. After a decade away, I am back in a state where people drink pop instead of soda. And, at long last, I’ve returned to the land of the Northern City Vowel Shift.

Speech is constantly in flux, whether or not we are aware of it. Regional dialects diverge, giving us the drawls of the South and the dropped r’s of the Northeast. More recently, cities in a large swath of the northern Midwest are reinventing their vowels, especially the short vowels in ben, bin, and ban. From Syracuse to Minneapolis, Green Bay to Cleveland, these vowels have been changing among Caucasian native English speakers. The vowels are now pronounced with a different positioning of the tongue, in some cases dramatically altering the sound of the vowel. A wonderful NPR interview on the subject is available online in audio form and includes examples of these vowel changes.

I must have picked up the Northern City vowels growing up near Chicago. When I arrived in Boston for graduate school, friends poked fun at my subtle accent. They loved to hear me talk about my can-tact lenses. And I can’t blame them for teasing me. The dialect can sound pretty absurd, especially when pushed to the extreme. It was probably best parodied by George Wendt and the SNL cast in the long-running Super Fans sketch.

I have long been in love with the field of phonetics and phonology, or how we produce and perceive speech sounds. Creating and understanding speech are two truly impressive (and often underappreciated) feats. Each time we speak, we must move our tongues, lips, teeth and vocal folds in precise and dynamic ways to produce complex acoustical resonances. And whenever we listen, we must deconstruct the multifaceted spectral signatures of speech sounds to translate them into what we perceive as simple vowels, consonants, syllables. We do all of that without a single conscious thought – leaving our minds free to focus on the informational content of our conversations, be they about astrophysics or Tom and Katie’s breakup.

Experiences in the first couple years of life are critical for our phonetic and phonological development. Details of the local dialect are incorporated into our speech patterns early in life and can be hard to change later on. As a result, everyone’s speech is littered with telltale signs of their regional origins. My mother and aunt spent their early years in a region of Kansas where the vowels in pen and pin were pronounced the same. To this day, they neither say nor hear them as different. Imagine the trouble my mother had when she worked with both a Jenny and Ginny. I’ve noticed major differences between my husband’s dialect and my own as well. My husband, a native Angeleno, pronounces the word dew as dyoo, while I pronounce it as doo because in Chicago the vowels yoo and oo have merged.

These days I’m watching phonetic development from a front-row seat. My baby has been babbling for a while and I’ve watched as she practiced using her new little vocal tract. She would vocalize as she moved her tongue all around her open mouth and presumably learned how the sound changed with it. From shrieks to gasps to blowing raspberries, she tested the range of noises her vocal tract could create.  And as she hones in on the spoken sounds she hears, her babbling has become remarkably speech-like. The consonants and vowels are mixed up in haphazard combinations, but they are English consonants and vowels all right. Through months of experimentation, mimicry, and practice, she has learned where to put her tongue, how far to open her mouth, and how to shape her lips to create the sounds that are the building blocks of our language. And just as she was figuring it out, we went and moved her smack into a different dialect. She will have to muddle through and learn to speak all the same. And once that happens, it will be interesting to see where her sweet little vowels end up.

On Nano-Naps and Dreamscapes

New mothers must be collectors of broken sleep, eagerly taking a sliver here, a shard there – whatever they can get.

Now that my baby is four months old, she’s finally sleeping at night. Still, she wakes me every two hours to nurse. She is half asleep while she feeds and I am always nodding off. In the few seconds it takes for my sinking head or my nursing baby to summon me back, I’ll have a momentary dream. A micro-dream. A nano-nap. No more intricate dreams of forgetting to do my homework or going to prom in a maternity dress. These dreams are all business: snapshots of everyday life. Once it may be a view of my husband lifting the baby out of her crib. Another time, I glimpse a lump in bed beside me and realize it’s my baby buried in our blankets (a terrifying dream.) But usually I simply dream that she’s nursing. A dream of mere reality: no more, no less.

How do I even know that I’m dreaming? The details are off. And in these cases, the switch from dreaming to wakefulness can be particularly strange. Once the transition felt as seamless as a change of camera shots in a television show. One moment I was looking down at my nursing baby; the next, she was flipped (mirror-reversed) in my arms and her head was noticeably smaller! Never before have I had such an immediate comparison between the mind’s eye and the naked eye, nor realized how very similar they feel. And never before have I had such uninventive, literal dreams. It’s as if I can’t muster the energy to dream up anything better.

In the face of my lackluster dreaming, I am all the more fascinated by the rich dream life of my daughter. From the day she was born I’ve watched her smile, pout, and wince and heard her scream and giggle madly in her sleep. In fact, she smiled in her sleep months before she gave us her first waking smile. Physicians have observed rapid eye movements in fetuses, suggesting that babies dream in the womb. But what are they dreaming of? Is it limited to what they know: heartbeats and jostling and amniotic fluid? Or perhaps their dreams are wilder than our own, unconstrained by the realities of life on this earth. After all, the infant brain contains legions of unpruned synapses and far more neurons than that of an adult. Who’s to say what sort of fantasy it might come up with?

Whatever sort of dreams a newborn has, we don’t remember them as adults. By late infancy, we’ve already pruned enough synapses and experienced enough of the world to have a basic vocabulary for our dreams. An adult’s dream may create some odd combinations – eyeballs growing on trees or hats that unfurl into snakes – but the vocabulary, the unitary elements, are fixed. Eyeballs, trees, hats, snakes. Grow, unfurl. Our potential dreamscapes are wholly constrained by the details of our waking existence.

As my baby examines new places and things, I am reminded that she’s cobbling together her own vocabulary of the world. She will store away sensations, objects, creatures, actions, concepts, cultures, and myths. A knowledge that the sun shines from above and plants sprout from below. That rivers run and lakes loiter. That caterpillars turn into butterflies and never the other way around. For better or for worse, her future dreams will be shaped by the idiosyncrasies of our funny little world.

Locked Away

The results are in. The ultrasound was conclusive. And despite my previously described hunch that our growing baby is a boy, she turned out to be a girl. We are, of course, ecstatic. A healthy baby and a girl to boot! As everyone tells us, girls are simply more fun.

As I was reading in my pregnancy book the other day, I came across an interesting bit of trivia about baby girls. At this point in my pregnancy (nearly 6 months in), our baby’s ovaries contain all the eggs she’ll have for her entire life. As I mentioned in a prior post, the fact that a female fetus develops her lifetime supply of eggs in utero represents a remarkable transgenerational link. In essence, half of the genetic material that makes up my growing baby already existed inside my mother when she was pregnant. And now, inside me, exists half of the genetic material that will become all of the grandchildren I will ever have. This is the kind of link that seems to mix science and spirituality, that reminds us that, though we are a mere cluster of cells, there’s a poetry to the language of biology and Life.

But after stumbling upon this factoid about our baby’s eggs, I was also struck by a sense that somewhere someone seemed to have his or her priorities mixed up. If our baby were born today, she would have a slim chance of surviving. Her intestines, cerebral blood vessels, and retinas are immature and not ready for life outside the womb. Worse still, the only shot her lungs would have at functioning is with the aid of extreme medical intervention. The order of it all seems crazy. My baby is equipped with everything she’ll need to reproduce decades in the future, yet she lacks the lung development to make it five minutes in the outside world. What was biology thinking?

Then I remembered two delightful popular science books I’d read recently, The Red Queen by Matt Ridley and Life Ascending by Nick Lane. Both described the Red Queen Hypothesis of the evolution of sex, which states that the reason so much of the animal kingdom reproduces sexually (rather than just making clones of itself) is to ‘outwit’ parasites. In short, if each generation of humans were the same as the next, parasites large and microbial could evolve to overtake us. By mixing up our genetic makeup through sexual reproduction, we make it harder for illnesses to wipe us out. Like the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll’s classic, we keep running in order to stay in the same place (which is one step ahead of parasites and disease).

Just as there are parasitic organisms and bacteria, one might say that there are parasitic genes. For example, mutations in the DNA of our own replicating cells can cause cancer, which is essentially a self-made, genetic parasite. Moreover, retroviruses like HIV are essentially bits of genetic material that invade our bodies and can insert themselves into the DNA of our cells. And the ultimate road to immortality for a parasitic gene would be to hitch a ride on the back of reproduction. Imagine what an easy life that would be! If a retrovirus could invade the eggs in the ovaries, it would be passed on from one generation to the next without doing one iota of work. It’s the holy grail of parasitic invasion – get thee to the ovaries! According to Matt Ridley in another of his books, The Origins of Virtue, the human germ line is segregated from the rest of the growing embryo by 56 days after fertilization. Within two months of conception, the cells that will give rise to all of the embryo’s eggs (or sperm, in males) are already cordoned off. They are kept safe until they are needed many years in the future.

So perhaps my little baby’s development isn’t as backwards as it seemed at first. Yes, lungs are important. But when you’ve got something of value to others, it makes practical sense to hurry up and lock it away.

Six Loves Seven

Ever since I was a child, numbers have been boys or girls. I remember moments of boredom in second grade when I looked at the number line stretched out above the chalkboard and made up stories about the digits between 3 and 9. (For some reason, 1 and 2 were too small to interest me much.) The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 9 were male, while 4, 7, and 8 were female. Six was in love with 7 and sought love advice and pick up lines from the clever trickster 5, the Cyrano de Bergerac of numbers. Meanwhile, 8 was the silent, wise woman, advising her neighbor and protégée 7 toward caution. To this day, when I call to mind these digits, their personalities and genders are as tied up in their meaning as their numerical representation. Just as 7 will eternally be the sum of 3 and 4, in my eyes it will always and forever be a girl.

My foray into the love life of digits may or may not be typical, but we all personify the world around us. Children naturally personify their teddy bears or action figures. Adults often name and genderize their cars, musical instruments, or gadgets. Historically, boats are given genders, as are ‘mother countries.’ Consider the success of Tron, a movie based on personifying computer programs. Consider the fan clubs devoted to Roombas (small, automated vacuum cleaners), and the many people who call them ‘cute’ or think of them as pets. We have one of those handy little guys, and when he is roaming around the house, I can’t help but think of him as alive.

Certain types of objects or concepts evoke personification more than others. Things that move or interact with us. Things that are important to us or that we rely upon. And certainly, things whose workings we don’t understand or can’t control. When our computer or television isn’t working, don’t we yell at it and talk to it? Isn’t there some frustration that comes from the fact that it’s not cooperating, like a stubborn child? When a vending machine “steals” our money, do we strike it merely because we think it will magically release our bag of Fritos? Or isn’t part of the reason because we’re angry at its bad behavior? It has acted unfairly; it has taken our money and reneged on its end of the deal.

Before the modern era of scientific gadgetry and examination, the whims of weather, reproduction, disease, and death were mysterious and fickle. Imagine how terrifying life would have been in such an extreme and unpredictable world, when harvests could be ruined without reason and infants struck down with inexplicable pox. It was in our nature, as creative, thinking beings, to explain the unexplainable. To create a framework in which we could try to understand the world, and in doing so, control it.

Should it surprise us that, since ancient times, societies the world over have developed mythologies and religions with anthropomorphic gods? We are inherently social animals and it is in our nature to think in terms of conscious entities with thoughts and emotions like ours. We know how to behave with each other, and if the gods are like us, then we know how to behave with them. We can make offerings to them, please them, appease them. We can win their favor, and in doing so, win ourselves good fortune. By conceptualizing the world in terms we understand, we believe we gain some purchase on our fate.

Now when I see children talking to their stuffed animals, bandaging their wounds or serving them tea, I think that they are practicing. When I remember my younger self, enraptured by the love affair of numbers 6 and 7, I think that I was in training. Like other children, I was just beginning to try to make sense of this world.

%d bloggers like this: