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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai
MOTHER AND CHILD RELATIONS AS A SEMIOTIC EVENT
M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
1. THE DIALECTIC BETWEEN CHILDHOOD AND ADULT HOOD
Margaret Mead once observed that Western society's effort to understand the
nature of childhood and to put that knowledge to work in brining up children
is one of its finest achievements. In Western academic pursuits, child studies,
indeed, form an important part, and child studies there developed into an area
of intense research and immense specialization. Study of children has not been
an independent activity or entity in Indian scholastic history, at least, in
so far as Tamil studies are concerned. While the study of child as an entity
in study is a contribution from the Western science to Indian mind, the child
has always been adored, worshipped, disciplined and held as a precursor of the
future adult among the Tamil and other nationalities of India. In its role as
a precursor of the future adult, childhood becomes a sign for the future adult.
2. A BRIEF PORTRAYAL OF CHILDHOOD IN TAMIL LITERATURE
Within Tamil literature and in current Tamil society, the following characterization
of and approaches to child and childhood may be identified. The list is very brief
and is not intened to be comprehensive at all. (A detailed analysis by psychologists
and linguists is needed for a better understanding of this subject. Some early
Tamil psychologists like E. T. Rajeshwari and T. E. Shanmugam did some excellent
work in this field.)
- Child is an object which should be protected.
- Child is an object whose companionship is to be enjoyed.
- For the childless, all their days are in vain. Note that, in this position,
having children is the sign for joy in this world.
- Only those who have children will have no problems getting to heaven. Note
that, in this position, having children is a sign that indicates joy, which
awaits parents in the life beyond.
- This world's life is useless, not perfect and not also desirable, if one
has no offspring.
- Children are objects, liked also by enemies of parents.
- Children are the sweetest; it is only those who have not the fortune of listening to the babbling of children who will say that "the flute and the veena" are sweet.
- The babbling of children is such that their utterances are neither appropriate to the context, nor are they perfect as the written form, nor do parents know their meanings. Yet the very utterances - babbling - are considered by parents to be bountiful grace showered on them.
- There is no better blessing/wealth than getting children.
3. OFFSPRING AND CHILDREN
In Tamil, there is an interesting distinction maintained between child
and children in common usage. "Children" may refer to children of a parent
whether they are young or old (more in the sense of offspring), but the
word "child," more often than not, refers to young children. Offspring
is a more general term in Tamil. This may be a universal feature of parent-child
relationship, but the scope of the operation of this universal feature appears
to differ from one language-culture to another. The offspring can either be
addressed or referred to as son or daughter, or simply a child. The enmeshing
of the concept of offspring and child requires further linguistic and psycholinguistic
investigation in Indian languages.
4. RELIGION AND CHILDREN - LANGUAGE USE
Every religion and society has its own views - codified and non-codified -
as regards the characteristics of children, their role as child and the functioning
of childhood in relation to adulthood, and even about the characteristics of
the language employed by them. The unity and diversity of views on children
between religions can be easily seen by comparing the views of children held
by Christianity and Tamil Saivite and Vaishnavite religions.
Jesus held children as the hope of the future and said, "Suffer the little
children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of
God. Verily I say unto you, whoever shall not receive the kingdom as a little
child, he shall not enter therein" (Mark 10:14,15). Christianity, thus, views
children as full of innocence, and perhaps bereft even of the original sin in
that stage (?), ascribing the original sin to their growth into their adulthood.
(Children are not in a position to account for themselves and redeem their sins.)
It is innocence and not divinity that marks childhood in Christianity.
Jesus is born a divine child, and is worshipped even as a child by "the wise
men from the east." The child was worshipped not for his childhood, but for
his potential as adult God. That divinity is attached to adulthood is revealed
more clearly in the translation of the Bible in Tamil in its choice of PNG (person-number-gender)
markers. The Bible in Tamil refers to Jesus the Child always in singular honorific
or in neuter. While the singular honorific is patently a honorific marker, use
of neuter to show respect/deference comes under the dynamic process of downgrading
as an act of elevation and elevation as an act of downgrading. (This process
is dealt with in my book Aspects of Language Use, Thirumalai1983.)
Note also that the use of singular honorific or neuter singular to show respect
and deference is not an exclusively adult reference, since the rich man's or
the master's offspring, even in the offspring's very young childhood, is and
may be referred to in Tamil by the people of socially and economically lower
strata (in comparison to those of the parents of the child) in singular honorific
or with the neuter singular, applying the process of downgrading as a process
of elevation. The (person-number-gender) PNG marker in Tamil has the function
of denoting the adulthood/childhood of the person addressed and/or referred
to as well as the revelation of the socioeconomic status of the person addressed
and/or referred to in relation to the speaker.
A single process involving a shift in the use of a few PNG markers and person
subjects (I, II and II person subjects) covers a wide range of interpersonal
relations such as spousal relations, master-servant relations, younger-elder
relations, adult-child relations, and so on.
As far as the concept of Godhead in Christianity is concerned, the Tamil PNG
system in secular use has been insightfully found fit for religious expression
by the translators. Christian theology (the evangelical Protestant theology)
finds God as an adult and God's childhood is something very quick and transitory
and that the existence and relevance of childhood is always related to and derives
its authority from the Godhead's adulthood. In secular terms, the child does
not have his own independent existence except with reference to his latter day
performance and competence.
Some difference, not really much is different, indeed, from this position,
is found in Tamil Hindu religions. There are certain deities, generally of the
elitist group (Thirumalai 1983, Aspects of Language Use), who
are worshiped in their childhood stage. Murugan, Vinayakar, and Kannan are these
major deities. There may be some folk deities which may also be worshipped in
their childhood. We do not have much information on this account. It appears
that there is no female deity worshipped in her childhood stage. This also requires
The non-availability of a female child goddess is perhaps related to the dominating
function of fertility ascribed to women in Hinduism. Women are there to bear
and rear children.
In any case Sivan is never worshipped as a child. The absence of childhood
stage for Sivan is generally explained away giving the reason that he is the
one who has neither the beginning nor the end. He can take incarnations, but
these incarnations generally relate to his performance in his adulthood.
Even when certain deities are worshipped in their childhood stage, their worship
is not based on their exploits performed by them as children, but are related
to a wider canvas of exploits and potential in their adulthood.
In essence, the child god derives his varaprasad (divine power?)
not in himself but from his own adult stage, in the reverse direction.
Perhaps one should interpret both the Christian and Hindu theistic values more
positively and say that although modern science allows for an exclusive treatment
and study in depth of child as an entity and an end in itself, these theistic
positions, perhaps, give us a lesson that, for a meaningful understanding of
child, childhood should, indeed, be viewed as a dynamic continuum with the goal
of reaching the adulthood.
5. CHILDHOOD AS A LITERARY GENRE
Some societies have elevated the stages or milestones of childhood for a special
treatment in their literature. This is distinct from the literature, generally
called children's literature - literature meant for children. Tamil has a literary
genre called piLLaittamizh (child Tamil), in which a celebrated
adult - god, godly being, or human - is imagined to be a child and this child's
activities are narrated in poetic form commencing from the child's third month
to the twenty first month, dividing this period into ten stages with two months
for each stage. The first seven stages are common for both female and male children.
The common stages are,
- Prayer, to a specified god, beseeching to protect the child who is the
subject matter of this book of poems,
- The lullaby stage,
- Growing stage,
- Sitting down with folded legs and clapping hands,
- Fondling-kinship stage
- Allative - calling stage, and
- Pointing to the moon.
The three stages described as peculiar to male child are
- Playing the drum, etc., to make rhythms,
- Going out on the road and disturbing the games played by girls, and
- Pulling/playing with a small toy chariot.
The three stages described as peculiar to female child are
relating to games played only by girls (treated as two connected stages) and
Some grammarians have assigned certain periods: second, third and fourth year, respectively for the last mentioned three items (Kazhagam 1959).
This genre generally covers the physical appearance and the stages of physical
growth for a child. The physical growth is, no doubt, seen enmeshed with the
child's cognitive growth, as can be seen from the division of the period into
several stages and also in the nomenclature assigned. And yet, although the
stages of childhood are made a subject matter of a specific genre of literature,
the contents of these poetic works are more or less of a stereotype nature.
The contents are generally derived from contemporary belief systems as found
in ordinary language, rather than from empirical observations. This genre has
not led to the development of child studies as an independent activity in Tamil.
Nevertheless that childhood is viewed as a sign meeting several functions of
adulthood, of religion and so on, can be easily recognized in the evolution
and existence of this literary genre in Tamil.
6. CHILD AS A SUPREME SIGN
Periyapuram, "Great Epic," written in the eleventh century A.D.,
presents the lives of great Saivite saints in the preceding centuries. There
is evidence in the work that the author of this "epic," Sekkizhar, visited most
of the places where these Saivite saints lived, and verified the traditions
current about them. The sign value of what is presented, therefore, is to be
seen in the tradition of belief. The following episode clearly illustrates how
"child" becomes a sign:
CirutonDa naayanaar was a great Siva devotee, rather a dedicated devotee of
all the devotees of Siva. He had taken upon himself the dharma of feeding at
least one devotee of Siva everyday. That day he looked for the devotees of Siva,
but found none on the streets during the meal time. When he was away from home,
a devotee of Siva, a Kapali-Bhairava mendicant, in frightful colors with an
awe-inspiring majesty of divine splendor came to Naayanaar's house.
When Naayanaar's servant maid and wife both pleaded with him to enter the
house and wait for Naayanaar who would return presently, the mendicant refused
and declared, "We cannot enter a home where women alone live. We come from the
North to see the famous Naayanaar. In his absence we cannot enter his house.
We will be waiting for him under the ebony tree inside the temple; direct him
there." He went away.
In a few minutes, Naayanaar returned, tired of a fruitless search for saints.
The wife at once told him about the Kapali and he ran with great delight to invite
the Kapali, and fell at his feet. Naayanaar told Kapali, "I wandered in search
of a saint and am, indeed, happy to see you. Please bless my home and partake
of our offering. You must be hungry by now." The mendicant replied: "Yes, indeed.
But I eat only once in six months and today I must eat; but I want the flesh of
a pasu. Without that, my hunger cannot be appeased."
The devotee said: "Very well, Swamy. We have cows. Please come and choose one
and we will cook for you its meat." The Kapali laughed: "Ha, ha, ha! Pasu is not
cow. My Pasu is sign - a boy of five years, a fine perfect tender, human being
(nara pasu). But can you do as I desire?"
Naayanaar: Readily, Swamy, we have such a lovely child of five years.
Kapali: But my further condition may cause you pain.
N: No, Swamy. To satisfy a saint, I can do anything; go on, Swamy.
K: The boy must be the only son of his parents - a dear child. The mother must hold him; the father must cut and slice him with joy, -- both without shedding a drop of tears. That human flesh must be nicely cooked for my lunch. Would you do it?
N: We shall do it right now, Swamy, as you say. Please grace our home.
K: Prepare the dish as I said, and call me. I will be waiting for you here.
(You may avoid reading the following paragraphs.
Readers are warned that the following description is very graphic and may cause
pain, grief, and anger, etc.)
Naayanar hurried home and told his wife all the things. She said, "Let us offer
our own dear SeeraaLan to appease the saint's holy yearly hunger." The father
ran to the school, saw his dear son SeeraaLan busy at his study. With the teacher's
permission, he brought him home on his shoulders. The mother bathed him clean
and adorned him with the richest silk and ornaments. He told the boy "My only
son, my darling, today you are going to satisfy the hunger of a great holy saint."
The boy felt happy. There was no trace of sorrow. The mother placed him on her
lap. The father took the knife and cute the head of the boy saying "Siva, Siva."
The maid took away the head and the body was sliced and cooked. The father ran
to the temple and informed the Bhairava, "Begin to dine, Sir, the food is ready
as you desired."
"Alright, very well" said the Kapali and he followed the father. After due prayers, the dishes were brought.
Kapali: You must mix these all together. We take only a mono-diet.
That was done. Again the mystic saint demanded "Have you cooked all parts
of the child?"
Naayanaar: All except the hair and head.
Kapali: Head too we will eat. Have you not cooked it?
Again they were worried. But the servant maid brought the head cooked.
Naayanaar: Now, serve yourself, Swamy.
Kapali: But we do not eat alone. Bring a Saiva-saint to eat with me.
Naayanaar went out in search of one, and none was available. So, Naayanaar offered himself to sit beside Kapali and eat.
Kapali: Alright. You are a saint, you sit with me and partake of the same food.
He sat down and was about to eat.
(You may resume reading the article from this
Kapali: Stop, why are you in a hurry. Even we who eat after six months are not in a hurry. You are in the habit of eating everyday. But still you are in a hurry. Now let your son come and join us.
Naayanaar: Alas, Swamy. He will be of no use now!
Kapali: I say, go out and call him! Go with your wife to the street and call
him. We will not eat here unless your son comes.
The parents went out, worried as to how they could now fulfill the supreme
duty of feeding unfailingly the devotee of Siva. They cried and called out the
name of their only son who is no more. But their son answered the call and ran
to them as if he were returning from the school. When they entered the house
with their son, neither the Kapali nor the cooked food was found.
7. SOME FUNCTIONS OF THIS SIGN
We saw earlier how child has been highly valued, how having children is viewed
as a passport for heaven and how children are viewed as the best form of wealth.
While these ponts and others I have listed above reveal the sign value of child,
the biologically and socially determined attachment the parents have for their
offspring is put to a serious test in this episode. Even the best, even the
object closest to you, has to be given up deliberately if you want to serve
as a faifthfyk devotee. A thorough detachment from the worldly values while
living in the world and enjoying all its benefits is offered as the goal. Child
is used to demonstrate this aspect.
The story sounds unbelievable, but one may note that sacrificing one's own
children for the sake of political ideology has been attested in several incidents
even in modern times. At least such incidents are portrayed in stories. (I remember
a short story by Chidamabara Ragunathan in which a young mother would throw
her child to stop the policemen who were chasing an underground political activist.
Any number of incidents can be cited these days when people are ready and willing
to sacrifice their lives for their ideologies or their politcal heroes.) We
may have difficulty in appreciating this Siva story, let alone believing it;
all the same we have difficulty in recognizing the very same story happening
before us day in and day out. Children may lose everything through child labor
widely practiced in India.We recognize the sign value of sacrificing the child
in this story, but we are unable to recognize the continued operation of this
sign in perverse ways in our own times. By our failure to recognize this process,
or by simply offering solutions through legal enactments which hardly have enough
teeth or willingness to bite, we become a party to the exploitation of children,
who neither have a trade union nor have an understanding of what others are
doing to harm their future.
8. MOTHER AS A SIGN
Mother Earth, mother as progenitor of everything, mother as Shakti (power,
omni power), mother tongue, mother land, mother as embodiment of chastity, mother
as embodiment of sacrifice, motherhood as ultimate goal of womanhood, mother
as embodiment of supreme love, mother as a sign of status in the use of address
terms, mothers as belonging to a separate "species, an honored group within
humanity," caste or race, mother as signifying understanding and wisdom,
treating everyone of the female gender as possessing the grace of mother, irrespective
of the age of the person addressed or referred to, mother as signifying only
female gender, mother as one who reflects and encourages the much desired social
model, and the meshing of the distinction between female gender, mother, and
goodness of womanhood are all found in Tamil. Bundling together of so many features
and expecting and implying all these characteristics from women in almost all
contexts amount to denying any individuality to the human female biological
organism. This denial has been elevated into an institution, so that the denial
is not recognized (and ever felt?). In other words, there is an alienation process
between the female gender as a biological organism and motherhood in social
setting, and motherhood comes to dominate the characterization of the female
gender in the Tamil language and culture contexts. Possibly this is applicable
to all Indian ethnic groups..
9. MOTHER - CHILD DIALECTIC
(i) The child's instructional role, that is, the children are teachers to their
parents, is clearly revealed in the dialectic between mother and child. The
mother learns of child as a separate "species," requiring special strategies.
And this recognition has led to the evolution of child care practices handed
down from one generation to another. One mother learns from another mother,
as well as from her own child. That the child is an instructor is perhaps the
iconic nature of visualizing very many elitist gods as children, as well, and
worshipping their childhood form. There are legends which speak of these child
gods teaching the Truth to their parent-gods.
(ii) Mothers (and other caretakers: compare here the institution of caretakers
who perform the functions of mother in the Sangam literary tradition) use speech
and nonverbal expressions during face to face play in such a way as to stimulate
conversation, as if children, who have just begun to utter words, are full-fledged
partners in this conversation process. Mother takes upon herself a leadership
role in creating and maintaining a semblance of a true dialogue, whether the
child understands her or not. Treating the child as if he were participating
in an intelligent conversation is a basic activity in mother-infant caretaking
and play. Child is taken here for what he will be, and not for what he is, a
sign state. The child is elevated to a full-fledged adult or grown up status.
(iii) The effect of the enduring parental role is to involve the infants in acts that are always beyond the child's capacities. This is shown in language use clearly - in patient conversations with the child.
(iv) Also as part of this process by way of help, the mother herself would
have done part of the job. For example, thanks to the fact that the mother's
turns in the conversation with the child will combine questions as well as corresponding
answers, the child's turns do not have to give any responses. Manifestations
of a more general adult role, that of amplifying biologically constrained interpersonal
structures in the direction of social conventions, linguistic rules, and patterns
of thought particular to a given culture are all part of this process.
(v) There is competition and pride among mothers in showing that one does really
interpret child's needs, whether the child belongs to them or not. Young mothers
who are not yet attuned fully to their offspring are given advice through this
process. In any case, this fact reveals the recognition that there is a dialectic
between mother and child and that this dialectic has its own characteristics.
(vi) The dialectic relationship between mother and child is clearly revealed in the type of speech addressed to their children by mothers. Mother's speech addressed to children is well suited to a language teaching situation - simplified, well-formed, utterance boundaries clearly marked by pauses, repetitiveness, a low note of dysfluencies, empathy, tonal contours, all adapted remarkably to fit the developing linguistic capabilities of children.
There exists a special language register of motherese. This
register is characterized by short utterances, many repetitions, and a few grammatical
errors among other features (utterance length, sentence type, verb tense, repetition,
wellformedness, few embedded clauses and few conjunctions, tag questions, a
large proportion of deictic utterances, phonological deformations, the characteristic
high pitched voice with extreme intonational markings). Motherese arrives in
response to the cognitive/intellectual level of the child. But this is only
partly true. For, motherese-like communication is engaged in by mothers in several
other contexts, with animals as well. Motherese appears to be rather a natural
process in some, activated by the subjects for the benefit of the subjects.
I would like to view motherese as a sign, a sign for the communication process,
a sign for the evolving communicative talents of the child. Motherese works
as an amorphous sign which is slowly broken into a network of linguistic patterns
and then slowly is lost, a total alienation leading on to nullity.
(vii) The initial conversation/communication between mother and child is totally semioticized. The communication itself becomes a sign. Neither a child nor the mother understand or intends the literal sense of the communication. Mother treats the sounds produced by the child as if they were interpretable as words. The existence of a verbal system known to the mother, the ability of the child to produce and reproduce sounds, and the disposition of the mother to assimilate the child's sounds to the existing language and to produce forms which deviate from it are all indicators of the semioticization of communication process, the acts of communication itself and not its contents, in early stages.
(viii) I would like to view the process of language acquisition as one of designing the communicative act itself/functioning as the sign, and breaking the sign of act of communication into smaller ones with interdependence. The sign value is shifted from the act to its contents in the process of language acquisition.
In this process, several strategies play crucial roles:
- Mother introduces various simplifications into her speech when addressing by
- The child provides cues indicating his comprehension of particular messages and his linguistic abilities in general.
- The mean length of utterances varies according to the amount of explicit comprehension feedback given by the child and even the sheer amount of his participation in a conversation.
- Mother's speech to child changes in many ways as child ages.
- Most languages, if not all, provide a variety of modifications reserved largely
for use when speaking to immature language speakers, most notably children.
- Mother's use of these various modifications is structured at any given child
age by a distinctive set of co-occurrence relationships which encompass many
levels of structure, ranging from syntactic to conversational.
- When a child's age and language knowledge are discordant, as is the case of some hearing impaired children, mothers tend to adjust their speech on the basis of the child's language knowledge.
- Mothers respond consistently to their infants' pointing gestures and reciprocate.
Thus, this is one of the ways of helping signs evolve.
10. THE DIALECTIC OF CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP
The ordinary language expressions in Tamil and other languages suggest a causal relationship between contacts with mother and latter day performance of the child. The literature elsewhere gives details of investigation on this point. The relationship between mother's speech and the characteristics of babbling of a child has been studied. Studies have also been made on the role of parent-child interaction and the speech addressed to children in language acquisition - on the basis of similarities between the structures used by mother and the emergence of structures in the language of the child.
A definite and direct causal relationship between the linguistic structures (their form, sequence of emergence, complexity, content, and function, etc.) that emerge in child language and the language of mother addressed to the child on empirical grounds, still eludes the investigators. The content, form, sequence and function of mother's behavior towards her child have been sought to be identified in the latter-day behavior of the child, thus seeking a causal relationship between the two.
In Tamil, the linguistic utterances and related behavior of mothers differ
from one social (and economic) group to another and the performance of children
in latter-day adult life in their social (and economic) groups also seems to
differ from one group to another group. The quality of difference seems to have
some parallel between the quality of content of the utterances of mothers of
various social (and economic) groups. Thus, the linguistic utterances mothers
utter and the utterances to which children are exposed are semioticized to reveal
the underlying social economic relations and consequent psychological states.
11. THE SEMIOTICIZATION OF LINGUISTIC UTTERANCES
The semioticization of linguistic utterances is also seen in the differences
in functions assigned to them. The following is the general outline of the contact
between mother and child in Tamil.
- The frequent physical contact leading to caressing and fondling
- Along with caressing and fondling, utteranceS of single syllables and combinationS
of syllables with no apparent relationship to words in language and in repetitive
- Vocative utterances with no apparent vocative function.
- Sentences indicating/identifying the objects and the events around. (Endearments.)
- Description of the child in relation to the childhood stage of the deities
and known humans, complexion of the child, the attractive physical features
of the child, his regular habits, adherence to order with or without instruction,
ease of poise, etc.
- The beginning of endearments based on a more stringent assessment of the behavior, linguistic and nonlinguistic, of the child. Direct address and indirect reference to behavior as well as reference made in conversation with others form the major mechanism of endearments.
- The all-pervasive endearment function of physical contact in early childhood
is slowly replaced by linguistic utterances, and physical contact takes on
a specialized function in Tamil society. The alienation process between parent
and offspring as biological organisms commences with the progressive loss
of physical contact between the two, with language coming to play a more important
link in the social relationship between the two. Alienation in the sense of
transfer of ownership in general is the ultimate goal of mother-child relations.
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