Outdated Language of Children
Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
by Iona & Peter Opie. Republished by New York Review Books,
2001, 417 pp
expect to pull out this volume and read it cover to cover at one
sitting. It’s hardly the kind of page-turner to keep you up at
Originally published in 1959, and recently reissued, this comprehensive
text documents and explicates the origins of children’s rhyming
games, playground rituals, jokes and secrets. There’s something
charming and quaint about both the tone and language of the authors’
approach, which gives as much weight to a child’s riddle or so-called
‘nonsense’ talk, as scholars would take with, say, James Joyce.
The very fact that the Opies (who worked independently on the
project from their home in Hampshire, England, and in their day
were the most respected antiquarians of children’s literature)
paid attention to what children had to say when they were by themselves
was fairly radical. And that effort made it possible for scholars,
educators, psychologists and others to be taken seriously in their
fields by taking children’s worlds seriously.
Still, while recognizing the work’s landmark status as a critical
watershed in exploring childhood and child development, especially
in the realm of language and its role, there’s no denying the
book’s very real limitations for a contemporary reader. It’s too
rooted in both its time—nearly half a century ago—and its place—Britain.
Some customs are mystifying to those not familiar with the idea
of being the ‘new boy’ at an English boarding school, as are references
to rituals that surround British celebrations of Shrove Tuesday,
May Day or Guy Fawkes’ Day. The examples that refer to that era’s
rhymes about Charlie Chaplin, Betty Grable and Shirley Temple
are also too dated for a contemporary reader to comprehend the
parody involved. It is doubtful that a teacher supervising an
elementary school class at recess would overhear many of the rhymes
or games that the Opies document and deconstruct.
So what’s the point of looking at this now, as something other
than an historical curiosity? The underlying thesis bears repetition:
that what children learn from each other is more real and entertaining
than what they learn from grownups. If nursery rhymes are propagated
by adults, for a moral or other educational purpose, then what
children chant when they’re among their own is truly representative
of who they are, and what they think. Thus, modern rap apparently
has its roots in what the Opies discovered so long ago in the
playgrounds of England.
So, those hypnotic jump-rope rhymes or the invocations to ensure
good luck or banish ill luck, still have the power to reveal children’s
thoughts and feelings to those adults who know how to listen.
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