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July 30, 2005

Magdi Aboul-Kheir

Translated from the German by Sabine Marschner

Mahadi and Buddha or, She Likes the Dead

Of course we were very shocked when, during breakfast, my one–and–half–year old daughter Ida suddenly cried »the dead«. We had no idea where she could have picked the word up, and still less why she was using it now. »The deeeeaaaad«, she said, emphatically.

The absurd death scene from Monty Python's film »The Meaning of Life« came to my mind: a jolly banquet is interrupted by violent knocks on the door. It's the Grim Reaper standing outside. »I am Death,« he says in a hollow voice. »Come in, Mr. Death!« the hostess purrs. Only slowly does it dawn on the dinner company what this sinister frock wearer is after: they have all died moments ago and he's come to get them. Death points his bony finger at the table: »The salmon soufflé ...« And then it's off to the hereafter.

My daughter was also vaguely pointing her finger across the table. We weren't having salmon soufflé, only slices of meat and sausages, but you never know. »The deeeeaaad!« my daughter roared. She was getting impatient with her dense parents. Suddenly – of course, we realized, the bread. Relieved, we gave her a slice. »Wid daud on!« Ida demanded. With sausage, glad to oblige. »The dead, good.«

It was as follows: Ida was incredibly gifted when it came to the acquisition of speech – copious vocabulary, complex sentence structure. That didn't work as well with a couple of sounds, however, and is the case with many children. You may know the scenario: an unknown brat stands in front of you, bawling: »Meewee dagaa masoocoo!« Some mother walks by, shaking her head impatiently and tells you: »So give him a piece of chocolate, already!«

It wasn't quite as bad in our case. But still – Ida often had difficulties with the initial sound of a word, pronouncing an »s« was very problematic and some of her expressions we simply couldn't trace back to their origins. »Butter« sounded like »buddha« – o.k. »Marmalade« was »mahadi« – also kind of intellegible. But why did she call a fish »da hipp«? Spreading marmalade on bread with butter became »the dead wid buddha mahadi on«.

Acquisition of speech is a fascinating process. Parents who want to assist their offspring properly should not priggishly correct children's word creations all the time. The word in question should simply be pronounced properly when used again. What's more those droll and charming childish inventions should not be picked up and used by the adults – for if they do, how can the little one learn how this word should officially be pronounced?

With our eldest daughter, Dana, we had shown exemplary behavior. All those incorrect consonants, mumbled endings and faulty declinations had quickly disappeared. With Ida, on the other hand ... we had come to find »Give me another dead!« kind of funny. And it wasn't long before her fumbled words had helped to enlarge our family's vocabulary considerably. Taking leave we called out »hütt« – meaning »Tschüss« (German for »Bye–bye«) – and demanded a »kitt«. A kiss. We spoke like this even when Ida wasn't present. »Hütt, dad.« »Mama, a kitt!«

We did not realize we were displaying rather strange behaviour in the eyes of third parties (in the supermarket: »We still need mahadi«, at the lakeside: »Look, da hipp!«) Neither did we realize that Ida had been making enormous progress in the meantime – totally without our help. »Bread, please«, our child would now say at the breakfast table, absolutely correctly, »with butter, please, and a slice of sausage, please.« A very friendly little person, by the way. I gave her what she had asked for: »Here you are, my dear, dead with buddha and saud.«

For a long time now Ida had been correctly saying: »Tschüss« when saying good–bye. When I left the office a couple of days ago, I called out to my colleagues, loud and clear, without even noticing at first: »Hütt!«.

The acquisition of speech is a fascinating process. So »Hütt« – see you around.

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