Helen, my daughter, who today turns six and three quarters, has a very particular way of speaking. She always has. Take the word "comfortable." She says it like this: "cuhm-ftibul," and when you hear her say it, because she sounds like an 83-year-old nice Jewish lady who lives in a rambling pre-war on West End and 87th and has since before everything got all shiny, thank you very much, "comfortable" takes on a kind of gravity. Instead of state of being you don't think about too much if you're lucky, in Helen's mouth, it takes on an essential if ineffable quality. "Are you cuhmftibul?" she'll ask when I lie down next to her in her bed. And if she knew how many ways one could occupy a state of comfort or discomfort, she'd mean them all.
But comfortable isn't the only word Helen pronounces idiosyncratically; that's because she, like many young children, doesn't have a full grasp of the letter sound for r. When Helen says a word with an /r/ it either sounds like a /w/ or a long vowel with an h attached. At least that was true until the day, maybe a month ago, when she very distinctly made the /r/ sound in the middle of a word. I wish I could remember what word it was, but I can't. Instead, I remember commenting on it. "That was a very nice 'rrrrr,'" I said. She repeated the word in the next sentence and ever since, she's been saying more and more rrrrs. She says them, oh, maybe 50 percent of the time, and when she does, she slows down her speech and emphasizes the sound. It's like watching someone learn to ride a bike very, very slowly. When she's mastered her /r/, my girl will have learned a new skill, one she'll need. Still, I know I'll miss those extra /w/s and long vowels, they make every word an adventahhh.