Dear Language Nerd,
All right, I’m a little early, but I want enough time to put your words (of wisdom, hopefully) into practice. I’m going to be Cookie Monster for Halloween… I’m in charge of a kid party, not my idea, but I want to do it well, so how do I speak like Cookie Monster?
When I started researching this, I thought it would be a quick, silly post. I had no intention of overturning all previous received Cookie knowledge. And yet, here we are.
There is not a lot of discussion around Cookie’s language.* Parents occasionally get upset at his grammar (y’all, chill**), to which Istar Schwager countered that Cookie is “babyishness personified.” The Muppet Wiki (yes, it’s a thing, of course it’s a thing) says that Cookie “generally speaks with simplistic diction, saying everything with ‘me’.” What little conversation I’ve been able to find shows a consensus for babyness.
But Cookie Monster doesn’t speak like a baby. To talk about why, and about how he does speak, we’re first going to need to see what baby-talk actually looks like. I’m gonna drastically simplify here, as is my way, and I’m drawing from my bosom companion David Crystal (pgs 438-9).
Let’s kick it off with the most important fact — babies and toddlers use very simple syntax. They start off with one word at a time, then two, then more. The one-word-only stage starts at around a year old and is sometimes called the holophrastic stage, because the wee ones manage to stick the meaning of a whole sentence into one word: “Up!” “Mama!” “Kittty!” At around eighteen months, they jump to two words: “Milk gone!” “Where doggie?”
Not until age two do kids start using function words like prepositions to show the relationships between other words. Full simple sentences start then. Multiple clauses, linked together with conjunctions that show causal relationships, get going around three and a half. And learning how to effectively use all the tools of English to communicate takes a lifetime.
With all that in mind, check out this quote:
Yeah, that’s three lengthy sentences, including flawless management of clauses and the verb-on-verb action of “happen to have.” Plus, good grief, anyone who can connect sentences with “ergo” ain’t speaking no baby-talk.
So what is it?
I say it’s a dialect. The Monsterrian dialect. Now, the word “dialect” sometimes gets bandied about as a negative term in the public sphere, but in linguistics, all dialects are created equal — including the standard. The English we’re taught in school is not more grammatical than, say, Southern English. Southern English just has different rules (that often get looked down on, sure, but not for any scientific reason). Linguists mostly just call everything “varieties” to limit this prejudice, so I could also say that Cookie Monster speaks the Monsterrian variety of English. I have two reasons for making this call.
1. The whole Monster family speaks this way. If Cookie were speaking baby-talk, his parents would speak very differently from him. But this is not what we see. His mom (twice!) and dad have both appeared on Sesame Street, and they speak the same way Cookie does. Even better, Cookie has a baby cousin… who actually does speak in baby-talk (“Cawwot?”), thus showing by contrast that Cookie’s speech is mature.
2. Cookie Monster code-switches.*** This means that he uses his own, native dialect most of the time, such as when talking with his friends, but changes to a different variety of English in certain formal situations. We’ll call the variety he switches to Sesame Street Standard (SSS), the language that the (human) adults use on the show (it has one major difference from the English taught in schools in the real world, which we’ll come to later). Check out this clip of Cookie Monster singing his breakout hit, “C is for Cookie,” as part of a band and playing to a large audience. In this public appearance, he uses SSS. Now check this other clip, which starts with Cookie Monster absent-mindedly singing the song to himself, in his home. Here, he uses Monsterrian English. Bam. Code-switch.
Alright, let’s get down to the real business. If Cookie speaks a Monsterrian variety of English, it has its own grammar. It’s not random. Like all varieties of all languages, it has its own consistent rules. So what are the actual rules of the Monsterrian dialect?
→ First and most obvious, there’s only one first-person pronoun. In SSS, they use “me,” “I,” “my,” and “myself,” but Monsterrian uses “me” in all positions (including “meself”). Similarly, “you” is used whenever a second-person pronoun is called for. The personal pronouns do not change for case. Note that this is not, as Muppet Wiki calls it, “simplistic” — it means that the dialect uses word order instead of pronoun cases, a distinction we’ve discussed before.
Examples: “Now, me bigger, ergo, me grew.” “Me just sauntering by, and me notice you say the word ‘cookies.’” “Me looking for cookies.”
Other languages/varieties that do this: Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. German, on the other hand, has more pronoun cases than English does.
→ Second, there is usually no copula (or rather, there is a zero copula) in present tense. That sounds fancy, but it just means that Monsterrian generally doesn’t use “am,” “are,” or “is.” This is also relevant in future tense — Cookie mostly uses the “be going to” formation for future and then drops the copula from that, but he also occasionally seems to be using a zero-copula for “will.”
Examples: “Hi, me Cookie Monster.” “You going to eat those cookie slow, or you going to eat those cookies fast?” “That good enough for me.” “Me all ears.” The best example of “will” is in a back-and-forth with the Count, when their statements parallel each other: the Count says “I will count them!” and Cookie rejoins, “No, me eat them!” (“Them” being cookies, natch.)
Other languages/varieties that do this: in various contexts, Arabic, Russian, Quecha, Hungarian, Hebrew, ancient Greek, and African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
→ Third, articles are uncommon. Cookie does use them occasionally, especially when looking to create a particular effect in his speech, but normally they are unnecessary for Monsterrian. He is much more likely to use a definite article than an indefinite article, which almost never come up.
Examples: “There no cookies in box… something wrong here.” “You going to eat those cookies slow […]?” The only time I saw him using an indefinite article, it was the point of the sketch: “Can me have… a cookie?” “No… you can have all the cookies!”****
Other languages/varieties that do this: Latin, Sanskrit, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, and Hindi have no articles; Icelandic and Arabic only have definite articles.
→ Fourth, all present tense verb forms are the same. There’s no “-s” on third person singular verbs (Cookie uses “he eat” instead of “he eats”). That “-s” is a holdover from back when English had a much more complicated subject-verb agreement system, so many modern dialects of English lose it, much like how we dropped the “-est” for 2nd person a while ago (as in “By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me”).
Examples: “Who care about clues without cookie?” “Cookie cookie cookie start with C.”
Other languages/varieties that do this: English already has very little verb agreement, but Japanese, Korean, Afrikaans, Swedish, and Norwegian have even less. In Hungarian, Swahili, and Basque, though, verbs agree not just with the subject but with the object, too.
→ Fifth, Monsterrian uses a wide range of vocabulary, with no notable lexical differences from SSS (well, except a higher rate of cookie-oriented terms, but I’m attributing that to the individual speaker, not to the dialect as a whole). Cookie does elongate and carefully enunciate particularly long or unusual words. However, other non-Monsterrian-speaking members of the cast do this as well, including the adult humans that are clearly the authority on the Street, so I believe this is a feature of SSS, reflected in Monsterrian.
Examples: “Me have great i-mag-in-a-tion.”
Other languages/varieties that do this: None as a usual feature, but plenty if the speaker is addressing a kid.
→ Sixth, negation is usually done with the word “no,” sometimes “not,” placed before the verb. This is basically negating with a particle, instead of messing around with auxiliary verbs like SSS.
Examples: “There no cookies in box.” “Me not going to eat Letter of Day […] me not Letter Monster, me Cookie Monster.” “Me no steal you cookie.”
Other languages/varieties that do this: Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Esperanto.
There you go. Everything you need for your first foray into Monsterrian.
Or, uh, I guess you could just say “Me want cookie” a bunch.
The Language Nerd
* Unlike another of Frank Oz’s characters, Yoda, who better syntaticians than I have already considered. Did you know that Frank Oz did both Cookie Monster and Yoda? And Miss Piggy? And Bert? And basically my entire childhood? How is it possible that there’s an entire National Poison Prevention Week and not even a National Frank Oz Day?
** More specific note for parents worried about Cookie-speak: your kids are not going to grow up never using the pronoun “I” because they love Cookie Monster so much. They might mimic him if they think it’s funny, but once they realize that only goes so far in their little peer groups, they’ll cut it out. But the greater Cookie-speech message, learning that people can speak English in different ways but still be perfectly well understood and accepted, is likely to be very good for the wee tykes in the long run.
*** Man, how have I never talked about code-switching before? This would be a great place for a link to a nice thorough discussion. I’ll write about it sometime in the future and come back and stick a link here.
**** Well, and he said “Wait a minute!” once, but that’s a set phrase.
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Are there any homes in the English-speaking world that lack a copy of David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language? Because if so, I see an opening for a new charitable organization.
Information on what languages have what features from Wikipedia, linked to individually in the sections above. Please don’t take those lists to be comprehensive, there are surely more that I haven’t heard about, and more detail to be given for the ones I did list. Also, I am all about the books and papers and academic whatnot for dramatic new ideas, but for laying out information so that people can easily use it, man, can’t beat the Wiks.
Wow, I have watched more Sesame Street researching this than I have since I was five years old. Whew. That’s a great kids show and all, but I gotta go watch Memento or something.
A NOTE: The Language Nerd is moving to Istanbul! I’ll be taking a month-long hiatus to get settled in at my new job, and will be posting every other Tuesday after that. Sorry, but they’re handing out cash money, which is really not something that this site rakes in. Fortunately, you can look forward to more posts from the Art Nerd in the meantime. And if you are interested in joining the League, let us know! You’d be surprised at the weird questions we have stacked up with no authority yet to answer them!
See you September 17th, and I hope y’all are ready to read a loooot of posts about Turkish.