The way that human beings acquire the ability to understand and use language is a hotly contested scientific question. Often the various theories have fallen on either side of the usual nature/nurture divide: are human beings born with a built-in capability to use language? Or, do we learn most of our language use through interactions with parents and other people? Noam Chomsky, arguing for the “nature” end of the answer, believes we are born possessing a language acquisition device (LAD); a part of the brain that contains most of the major principles of language. On the nurture-end of the spectrum, Social-Interactionist Catherine Snow claims that language is almost entirely entrusted on adult-interaction.
The profound tension between these two classic responses to human development occurred to me as my two-year-old son, Will, declared one day: “poopie, poopie, poopie”. Now, I am quite sure that my wife and I had not uttered this word in his presence. But, I also recalled hearing this very same word, and its various derivatives (“poop”, “poo-poo”, “poopie-doopie”, and straight-forward “poo”), from other children that I’ve interacted with during my life. In fact, I could safely say that I’ve heard this word used by nearly every single child I have known. I began to wonder: did my son “acquire” this word from interaction with others? Or, was this word hard-wired into his brain; did “poopie” come from the language acquisition device in his brain?
My investigation into this question began with a phone-call to every parent of every child Will interacts with on a regular basis. At first, I simply asked them, “does your child say ‘poopie’?” But, I found that this simple query did not really get at the main question I was trying to answer. I had to switch the question to: “did your child teach my son to say poop, poo-poo, poopie-doopie, or simply poo?” In any event, I could not entirely rule out the social-interaction theory as an explanation for my son’s learning this word, because many parents simply hung-up on me. And, of those who did engage with me in this scientific inquiry, they would usually answered with some version of “no” (“nope”, “of course not”, “are you crazy?”, “leave me the hell alone”, “don’t ever let me see you, your child or anyone from your family near my son/daughter, again”).
So, I decided to turn to explore the nature side of the debate – the methodology of which proved to be a bit difficult. Since I could not go back in time and make my son a feral child living with wolves, I entertained the next best thing: the construction of a completely safe and self-caring environment in his room. Basically, I put his bed on the floor, gave him a food dispenser that released raisins, yogurt, and Fig-Newtons as needed, as well as two dozen water-filled sippy cups. He was also granted easy access to every single toy he owns.
At first, I left him alone in his safe-room for three hours. But when I opened the door, he stepped out and declared, “Poop!”, rather triumphantly even. I then upped-the-ante by leaving him in there for six hours. When he came out, I thought I had made a break-through, since he asked to be picked up and wanted to watch Sesame Street. But, ten minutes later, he was pulling on our dog’s tail and calling out “poopy-tail, poopy doggy”. At this point, I realized that it was more or less hopeless for me to prove or disprove the validity of the nature argument, mainly because my wife pointed out that this methodology was ultimately flawed anyway.
In the end, I’ve decided to explore a completely different hypothesis. In fact, I now believe that “poopie” may have nothing to do with language acquisition at all. In fact, I have good evidence that it may actually be linked to viral pathogenicity. Apart from its apparent ability to self replicate itself to all children hosts (i.e. why every child says it), additional proof of this is established by the fact that this word easily attaches itself to other words, effectively demonstrating a mutational effect, not unlike the actions of many well characterized viruses(scientifically termed antigenic drift). Seriously, not a day has gone by that my son has not uttered at least one word without “poopie” leeching off of it: “poopie-head”, “poopie-helicopter”, “poopie-daddy”, etc.
Anyway, my plan, at this point, is to somehow confirm this theory. One of my science friends says I have to write a grant or something. And I’m thinking of the wider implications – if I am correct, it could lead to a myriad of useful technologies, not the least of which is a “poopie-vaccine”.