One of the major milestones all parents look forward to is their child’s first word. After all, a spoken language is what distinguishes us from the rest of the intelligent apes, and the first word is the moment when your little bundle of neediness and poop becomes a fully integrated part of the human race. Every baby diary dutifully stipulates you must record this sacred first word, and people can often tell you what it was as it sinks into the familial consciousness as a treasured anecdote.
I’m finding it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Izzie talks. That is, she makes lots of babbling noises that she combines in long streams of phonemes. Every so often, she’ll therefore come out with something not simply resembling a word, but as clear a word as you’ve ever heard. By accident.
Do these random noises count as words? I bloody hope not. About five months ago when she was sitting on our bed, she looked at me, smiled, and said as plain as day, ‘Murder.’ When I was bathing her a month after that, she pointed at me, all innocent and sweet, and said, ‘Man-boobs.’ There’s no way in hell I’m writing that in her baby diary!
Then there are the words she uses that aren’t actual words. Whenever she sees my father-in-law’s dog she says, ‘Wo-wo,’ and does it consistently enough for us to know what she means. If a word is a bunch of sounds that carry a specific meaning that is used to communicate information, then ‘wo-wo’ is definitely her first word. But ‘wo-wo’ isn’t a word – at least, not in any language of which I’m aware.
And what about words she mispronounces? If you greet her and say, ‘Hello,’ she replies with, ‘Ay-oh’. There are two problems with this one. First, she’s simply repeating what you’re saying rather than volunteering the sound herself. Secondly, ‘ay-oh’ is not ‘hello’. So do these facts invalidate it as a word?
Anyway, what she can say seems, to my mind at least, far less important than what she can understand. It’s said that for every word they can say, a child understands ten. I think that’s an underestimate – Izzie seems to understand freaking everything.
Mummy, daddy, Nana, Granny, Poppa and Gramps are a given by this age, and there’s no doubting she knows her own name. Yes, no and don’t are also in the bag, even if she chooses to ignore them more often than not. And key events are well known – bedtime (rubs eyes), nappy change (runs away), bye-bye (waves).
More impressive are the actions. Most of them are quite simple, one-action commands. ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ will prompt her to seek it out. ‘Get it for daddy,’ results in her fetching it. ‘Put it in the box,’ will make her do just that, and she’s very good at ‘hands up’, ‘clap’, and ‘twinkle, twinkle’ (opening and closing fists).
Some, however, are far more complex. If you say, ‘Mummy needs to put on her shoes,’ she crawls over to a shoe, picks it up, brings it back, and tries to put it on mummy’s foot. Generally the wrong foot, but it’s still remarkable when you consider she can’t actually speak yet. Before you know it, she’ll be making daddy his morning coffee.
So if anyone asks, many years hence, about Izzie’s first word, it was ‘murder’, followed by ‘man-boobs’, ‘wo-wo’ and ‘ay-oh’. But until she says something like ‘mummy’, I’m leaving the baby diary blank!