There are many mysteries surrounding the way babies communicate. The biggest mystery of all concerns the behavior of adults around them. Why is it that generations of loving parents have accepted that a newborn will peacefully doze off if you sing it a lullaby like "Rock-a-bye baby," with its implication that falling asleep and falling from a treetop are one and the same? And "Three blind mice" should be chopped down with its own carving knife as one of the cruelest ditties in the English language.
Conventional wisdom has it that most nursery rhymes started as a form of social or political satire - Jack and Jill fall (and tumble) into this category. But all the king's horses and all the king's men can't quite piece together the origin of all nursery rhymes. Today their main relevance seems to be as a way of preparing innocent kids for the horrors of the average Walt Disney movie, in which the mother gets shot down in the opening scene or the brave, wise Lion King father is murdered by his own brother just as you've grown fond of him.
The origins of "Baa baa black sheep" could be a protest on a wool tax imposed by a king in the Middle Ages, but it apparently has other uses today. One wonders why grown-ups seriously teach infants the sounds of animals they are more likely to eat than meet in the urban jungle. Based on Hollywood movies, all animals can speak English (albeit with an American accent in some cases), whereas every French kid knows that a rooster crows "cocorico" and even the youngest Hebrew speakers recognize "cocoricoo" but would have a hard time with "cock-a-doodle-doo."
There could be many reasons we teach young children the sounds of animals, says speech therapist Aderet Shitreet. "No one explanation is better than the others. But I think one of the reasons is the way children can easily identify with animals. I see this with my own baby. They are animate unlike, say, a ball, which you can't do much with until you have verbs. Animals are an attraction and enrich the child's world by teaching things like size and color. Another reason could be that the sounds are used in a way to help a child learn the sounds of his own language."
That's why the sheep in holy pastures, black or white, mew "mee, mee" (in a way that almost rhymes with "weigh"). And there's no point in teaching a Hebrew speaker that a frog says "ribbit," notes Shitreet. It's much more useful to practise the sound "qua qua."
For the same reason, real Zionist dogs bark "hav hav" and leave the woofing to canines in the Diaspora.
Teaching babies useful sounds is serious child's play the world over. "That's why in English you have 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' and in Hebrew 'LeDod Moshe Hayta Hava,'" says Shitreet of the song which in its local form stars the animals down on Uncle Moses's farm.
So the next time you find yourself making undignified noises to an infant, don't worry that you're being a silly (mother) goose or going ga-ga. You're helping the child develop rather than regressing yourself.
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