Me and my knee.

In addition to jumping off perfectly good bridges, riding jet boats, and going on geeky Lord of the Rings tours, my vacation included one linguistic moment of note.

I went to visit a friend and meet her newest family member, now 2 and 1/2 years old (its been a while). The young lady in question, we’ll call her R, is quite interested in photographs, and showed me a large number, including a photo of the soccer team of one of her older sisters, K. I haven’t seen K since she was 6, so I peered at the various 10 year olds till I thought I had her picked out. Pointing at her I said to R, “Is that K?” “No,” replied R, “that’s K’s knee”. “That is K” (pointing more at K’s head than I had).

No doubt there is all sorts of research on when and how children grasp demonstratives that I don’t know about, so that this sort of events are familiar to many readers. None the less, I thought it was a nice example of pragmatics gone askew, and had to share. Among the things that occured to me when R said it:

– R is having no trouble with the use of names to refer to people’s images in photographs rather than to them themselves (she didn’t say, “that’s not K, that’s a picture of K”), which one might think is also a pragmatic phenomenon. Are the two things pragmatically different in some way, or is this just a case of not having full competency?

– R is also having difficulty with the pronoun ‘you’ in connection with photos — when she showed me a picture of her self, and I said “what are you doing” she looked at me blankly, but if I said, “what is R doing” I got an immediate response. This difficulty was consistent over a whole roll of film of pictures of R. Perhaps the problem is with how to refer to images of things after all, since she does fine with ‘you’ in other contexts.

– K is clearly more closely identified with her head than her knee. Interesting that this socialization kicks in so early. However, also curious, since the same socialization surely subconciously kicks in the pragmatic process by which adults and older children would conclude that the proximity of my finger to the image of K’s knee was accidental — people just don’t refer to other people’s knees by the names of those people.

3 thoughts on “Me and my knee.

  1. Very cool example. I like it when you get to look inside how someone’s mind works.

    A young man with some mental abnormality was accompanying me once as I had my arms full, so I asked him to remove a ring of keys from my belt to open the office door. He selected a square gold-coloured key, so I told him the key he needed was the same shape as that, but silver. He selected a silver key of a different shape. I described the required key again, relative to the one he had. We continued through most of the key ring, only able to match one specified quality at a time. It would have been much easier for me to put down the equipment and get the key myself but it was fascinating to observe that although he knew the names of the colours and shapes and the concepts of bigger and smaller, he seemed unable to apply them simultaneously.

  2. That’s really interesting. But I’m not sure why you think we’re *socialised* to identify people with their heads rather than their knees. Psychologists have demonstrated that babies are born with a surprising amount of innate knowledge & tendencies, and it’s hard to think of anything more natural than identifying people with their faces.

    That ‘you’ thing is interesting though. Do you think it’s because R has trouble thinking of herself as identical to the her-in-the-photographs? She can identify herself there if named in the 3rd person, sure, but perhaps the ‘you’ makes the personal identity problem more salient?

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