Why it’s OK for Your Child to Make Up Words

June 10, 2016 Published by

Is that even a word?

I was thrilled to hear the news recently that Roald Dahl’s delightful made-up words will be compiled in a dictionary to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The dictionary will feature the words that became so indicative of his style, such as phizz-whizzing, wondercrump, snozzberry, snozzwanger, scrumdiddlyumptious and many more, which Dahl used to keep young readers entertained.

Scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory



Lexicographer, Dr Susan Rennie, who compiled the book, explained that the words the author used were based on familiar sounds, meaning that children understood their meaning, even when they hadn’t come across the word before.

child-reading-bookThis is not dissimilar to the way that children make up their own words when learning language. Sometimes slight mishearing can create words that make complete sense. My own daughter used to say glue tack, rather than blue tack, but we all knew it was sticky! And she called a windowsill a window shelf, which also makes complete sense.

Often, our complicated rules for language can cause misunderstandings and in turn, more new words. Why isn’t it winding, when yesterday it was snowing and the day before, raining? In this instance, my daughter used the rule of taking the weather and adding –ing.

Others add –ed to the end of the wrong words to show past tense verbs. ‘I catched the ball’, is a commonly heard mistake, when children misuse the rule found in sentences like ‘I baked a cake’ or ‘I walked to the park’. The fact that they've learnt the 'ed' rule shows that their language is developing, and they understand how to talk about the past, so don't worry about the odd mis-application of the rule. 

The words that Roald Dahl used are another way that children often develop new words. They will have a gap in their language that they need to fill in order to express themselves, either because they can’t pronounce a word, or they don’t know it, and so a new word is born. This is a process of learning language. I know a little girl who still calls her grandad ‘Rarag’ at five years-old. She couldn’t pronounce Grandad when she was learning to talk, so she found a new word that she could.

shakespeare-inventing-wordsAnother literary great, Shakespeare, made up a whole raft of words that we now use in everyday language. Madcap, rant, zany, elbow, gossip and up to 1,700 more words in our current dictionary were coined by Shakespeare when writing.

So the next time a child invents a 'nonsense' word, don't be so quick to correct them - you might have a literary genius on your hands. Instead ask them more about the word, what it feels like, whether you can use it too (some children are protective over their new words). By accepting the words as fun, positive parts of language development, you encourage your child to experiment with words and in turn, you nurture their creativity.

The next time a child invents a 'nonsense' word, don't be so quick to correct them - you might have a literary genius on your hands.



Photo Credit: Reading by Erik Schepers licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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This post was written by Dr Amanda Gummer

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