I was driving with my son, Abner, the other day when he asked me, "Dad what is the germature outside?"
Sometimes his pronunciation is a little fuzzy so in an effort to clarify I said, "What's the temperature?"
He responded, "No dad, the germature!"
Still I didn't get it. It took three times of repeating this exact exchange for me to realize that he actually meant to say "germature." This process could have taken even longer if not for the fact that there aren't really any English words besides "temperature" that are in most six-year-olds' vocabularies which both sound like "germature" and make sense in the context he was using it.
Having finally correctly determined his intended phonemic Phoneme: A contrastive unit in the sound system of a particular language. A minimal unit used to distinguish between different meanings. Symbolized with slashs: /s/ is the last phoneme in the encunciation of both "dogs" and "cats". utterance I set about finding out what it meant. I had after all never heard the word "germature" before. Still I had some idea of what it could mean.
"Do you mean like how many germs are outside today?"
I let him know that there wasn't a conventionally acknowledged scale for the level of germs in a given region that I knew of. "I don't know what the germature is outside because there isn't really a way people usually use to measure how many germs there are somewhere."
When he said "I just made it up," I wasn't sure if he was admitting an error of overgeneralization Overgeneralization: A type of speech error commonly made by children. When a linguistic rule is applied to a greater number of linguistic constructions than it is conventionally acknowledged to operate on. Commonly found in the morphological formation of tensed verbs whose accepted form is irregular. A rule like: " "-ed" on the end of a verb makes it past tense." is often overgeneralized by children, e.g., "runned" instead of "ran" and "sleeped" instead of "slept". There is often little or no trouble in understanding the intended meaning of words formed by overgeneralization. The overgeneralization referred to in this story is: "If -ature is attached to a noun the resulting word denotes some value on a scale which measures some feature associated with that noun." or acknowledging the fact that he had consciously coined a new term. In either case, we entertained a lively discussion of what the germature of various things would be assuming there was in fact such a thing as a germature. I conjectured that a door handle would have a high germature compared to a ceiling, and tree bark a lower germature than dirt. These relative considerations did not satisfy him. What he really wanted was the exact number of the germature on the door handle, and other things which might be measured on the proposed scale. I remarked that this would be hard to say for sure as the germature of any given region was probably measured in something like millions and I couldn't count that fast or see that close. Now I may encounter less resistance when I ask him to wash his hands if I frame the request in his own terms. I might for instance say something like, "You need to wash your hands. Their germature is too high."
It seems that Abner has somehow ascertained that "ature" is a morpheme Morpheme: The smallest meaningful unit of a language. "Daffodil" consists of one morpheme. "Approach-able" consists of two (separated by a dash). that occurs as a suffix and means vaguely "degree of" or "level of" or maybe, "state of" whatever lexical category it is bound to. This seems remarkable considering how few "ature" words a six year old is likely to encounter. I can myself only think of a few "ature" words e.g., ligature, caricature, investiture.
My question is how did Abner come to decide that "ature" was a meaningful unit? Perhaps a "degree of" or "state of" construction is a natural element of human grammar and Abner decided that "ature" was an appropriate and economical candidate to fulfill this role. "Germature" is after all easier and faster to produce than some alternative like "the degree of germiness". Another guess is that "temperature" is a word which has a componential meaning. To understand such a word a person must first understand the simpler concepts (for "temperature" these are "degree of" and "hot/cold") which when combined synthesize a more complex notion (in this case a value on a scale of heat). Perhaps it is a natural inclination to assign different aspects of componential meaning to different phonetic units Phonetic unit: A unit of sound used in the production of speech. Phonetic units can come in different sizes depending on how many phones (linguistic sounds) they consist of. Phones are represented by brackets: [s]. The utterance "temper" is a phonetic unit with six phones. The utterance "ature" is a phonetic unit with four phones. .
Abner hears the word "temper" quite a bit and this may have something to do with his consideration of "ature" as a meaningful unit. However, this is not the same "temper" which is bound to the "ature" in "temperature". For him the stand alone "temper" is equivalent in meaning to "composure" or "anger threshold". This is not the same as the meaning "hot/cold" which presumably would be what was left of the meaning of "temperature" after his meaning of "ature" was removed from it. I think it likely for him to have traced some association between the two "temper"s on the basis of their similarity of sound even though he can discriminate between them, i.e., knows they have different meanings. An alternative hypothesis is that perhaps his exposure to words with "ature" is more prevalent than I have noticed in my unscientific observations. We do watch some shows like "Bones" and "House" which are rife with technical jargon and many "ature" words may have escaped my own notice while impressing my more linguistically attuned six-year-old son.
Here an unscientific "test" for the "temper association" hypothesis. I'll tell Abner this not-very-funny play on words, and see if he gets it without laboring the punchline.
"Its really mad in here."
"What do you mean?"
He will either get it and shake his head about how much effort I have put into being unfunny which will support the hypothesis, or he won't get it and will say "What are you talking about?" which will feather doubt on my hypothesis.
Directly following the germature conversation Abner had another exceptional thought.
"You know what would be awesome?"
"A candy bath."
Kids say the darndest things.