First Words (Just Like Magic, Part Two)

Given how standard it is to ask about a baby’s first word, it’s ridiculously complicated to figure out. One time when she was a couple weeks old, Rebecca was sleeping in my lap when I heard a very small voice, very clearly say “Help!” I looked around the room, half expecting a fairy or gnome, when I realized that the voice had come from the baby in my lap, and that she did in fact want help. So, was “help” her first word?

She said “help” several more times as a newborn, but similar things happened later, like saying “I like this one” about a necklace. I’m pretty sure that she meant to communicate just what I heard, but she did it without knowing the full conventionalized meaning of the English syllables. I figure this can’t be too uncommon. We’re predisposed to hear words in a flurry of voice the same way we are to see faces in a flurry of shapes, and in those days the part of my head that picks up patterns was working overtime.

While I was making patterns out of Rebecca’s noises, she was making patterns out of mine. Littlest imitated whole strings of intonation before she got around to isolating word syllables for concepts. That’s how last summer Ted and I both independently overheard her saying “I love you” to the coffee table, which was her favorite thing to pull up on. She got the consonants all wrong, but I think she knew what she was saying. I have a couple regular intonations for saying “I love you,” and that pattern of affectionate sounds had a clear, repeatable meaning before the individual words did. A baby figures out the meaning of individual words by abstracting them out of a series of meaningful contexts, so it doesn’t surprise me that she’d repeat a recognizable phrase before repeating recognizable words. In a sense, sentences come before words as a unit of meaning. There are plenty of words that I need context to understand, even as an adult.

Okay, but what was her first actual word? It may have been “mama” or “dada,” sometime late last summer, but it’s hard to be sure when she started using them with deliberate prescribed meaning, versus babbling or versus whatever you call it when a two-week old says “help.” Once she started using those syllables discriminately in particular situations–like mamamama! when she was indignant about something I was doing–it was still hard to tell whether she meant the word as a name. So I’d try to do things that would elicit the word, so that I could tell how she was using it, but that may have changed the meaning of what she was saying.

Which would totally screw up the romance behind her first words. The game parents play–even knowing it’s a game–is that first word choice is an independent emanation of something deep within our babies, and that it can finally tell us something about who these little people are and what their worlds are like. I’m too crotchety for it, or maybe just too earnest. It weirds me out that people emphasize babies’ ability to produce context-independent meaningful syllables, despite the fact that both you and the baby are speaking in a particular context and you both use that context as part of your interpretive schema.

Besides, first words don’t tell you much about where the kid’s language is headed. Rebecca’s probable first words (mama, dada, and baba for boob) had fallen into disuse by December. Instead she said “this” and “that” a lot, in conjunction with pointing, and seemed to call me “I” when she wanted my attention. “I” is how I usually refer to myself, after all. And I could make like calling me “I” reflects some profound truth of the mother-baby relationship, but maybe she was just saying a version of “hi” without the h?

So, anybody else have better stories about first words? I’m wondering whether my experience is unusually convoluted, because usually my experience is.

I had an irresistible impulse to edit this a few hours after posting, and I know it’s not the first time I’ve done something like that. RSS readers, have I annoyed you? Because if no one cares, I’m unlikely to stop.

2 replies on “First Words (Just Like Magic, Part Two)”

  1. Your experience certainly sounds a lot like my experience of my daughter’s learning to communicate. We also did the baby sign thing and that has if anything even more ambiguity around which probably-meaningful gesture counted as first. I suppose we could even say that her first word was “t!” which she would invariably say while making the sign for “open”, which for a while was her all-purpose sign for “do the thing!” I’m not sure what word it was supposed to be in her head, though. But we did tend to speak and sign at the same time, to her.

    My mom said that I reproduced sentence intonations the way that you describe, so I made some conscious effort to emphasize them with her. She always had a keen ear for intonation, but I don’t remember if she made intonation-only sentences.

  2. We only did a little babysign, but now that people are asking how many words Rebecca says, we’re running into a similar question about whether to count things that she says or signs consistently but that don’t sound like grown-up words. The big examples are her cat noise, which is a kissy sound for calling cats, and her bird noise, which sounds like a crow. Rebecca talks about cats and birds A LOT. And last week she started imitating sea gulls as distinct from crows.

    (also, thanks for the response and, oops! I didn’t see your comment right away, so I edited my post after you wrote, and that’s totally bad form. Sorry.)

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