The Cognitive Magic of 'Hi'

The use of a seemingly simple word illuminates children's cognitive development, social understanding, and linguistic creativity.
Source: Adobe Stock
By: Tom Roeper

Often, one of a child’s first words is hi or its twin bye. A parent may feel, proudly, that sheer humanity radiates forth when a child first says “Hi.” But saying “Hi” is also a significant mental accomplishment, since the word refers to no visible thing.

This article is excerpted from Tom Roeper’s book “The Prism of Grammar: How Child Language Illuminates Humanism

What do children have to know in order to use hi, and what does their learning path tell us about their qualities of mind? One child I knew had a habit of saying “Hi table,” “Hi hat,” and probably many children do this briefly, without our noticing. How exactly did this child use hi differently from adults? The answer starts to tell us why hi is complicated. It is a greeting, of course, but then, what is that? Do we greet only people? We say that we “greet the day with coffee,” but we do not say “Hi day.” Greet the day is easily disregarded by adults as a model because it is an idiom, but how would the child know that it is an idiom?

A child who says “Hi table” already exhibits creativity and defies the popular doctrine of learning-by-imitation. What could lead a child to say “Hi table”? He never hears anything like it — or does he? Parents now and then may talk about a highchair. Suppose the child thinks he hears “Hi chair” instead. In fact, all children do hear “high chair” (highchair) or “high [some object].” Now the problem has reversed itself. How does a child who hears “high chair” avoid the conclusion that the person speaking has just said “Hi chair” and avoid deducing further that “Hi truck” is equally appropriate? (There are some intonational differences between hi chair and high chair, but that just makes the child’s task more difficult because intonational variety and creativity constitute another problem to be solved.)

It is evident that children seek to find the parts of words; their mistakes in fact reveal their search to us.

Words are easy to misunderstand in this way. It is evident that children seek to find the parts of words; their mistakes in fact reveal their search to us. A child of a friend said, “Thanks for your housepitality” (apparently hypothesizing that hos must really be house), and called things “giantic” instead of “gigantic.” Another child said, “It’s under the neath,” assuming, quite logically, that if under takes an object (under the table), then a “neath” must be such an object. Still another child insisted, “It’s a squirm,” when looking at a worm, apparently hearing the form sq-worm. Such examples provide a miniature version of a child’s mind at work: The child must get just the right rule, the right generalization about the structure of words.

Social factors also come into play in learning when to say “Hi.” The exact social occasion for greeting is hard to pinpoint. Hello does not imply that we are acquainted with the hearer, but hi usually does (though perhaps that is changing). We say “Hello,” not “Hi,” when we first answer the phone. We may even use both (“Hello …oh, hi”), suggesting that the two words must have different meanings. We do not usually say “Hi” when we move from one room to another in a house and meet a family member, though we might when we see someone for the first time that day. It is a greeting that implies a small amount of “social distance” usually created by time. How much time? We would not say “Hi” to someone after sitting next to her in silence for two hours in a dark theater. But would a child? These are all subtleties that the one-year-old who makes people smile by saying “Hi” to everyone, all day long, must in some way notice and process, on the way to the conventional, adultlike use of the word. Fine-tuning the social context of hi is not instantaneous.

There is a classic linguistic answer to the question of how we learn hi: Children are innately endowed with a particular emotion, call it “greet,” and they attach this emotion or idea to a word that they hear (in English, hi). This answer is worth pondering. The notion “attach-word-to-idea” may not be totally free; that is, perhaps there is in fact not a word for every feeling. There seem to be “ideas” or “emotions” that we experience with some clarity but that do not easily lend themselves to particular words. An adult or a child may emotionally recognize what corresponds to charm or megalomania or altruism or indifference without words to express it. It is an adult culture that has found words for them.

Perhaps adults likewise experience many poignant feelings, which never will be captured in individual words. Poetry is really a kind of meaning that darts between words but is never really expressed. This is where the saying “You have to read between the lines” comes from. A complete theory of mind would reveal not just how we understand what is said, but also how we infer what is not said, what is indicated but not expressed, the state of mind of the child who chooses to speak.

Tom Roeper is a professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts who has studied child language for over 40 years. He is the author of “The Prism of Grammar,” from which this article is excerpted.

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