A Cultural History of First Words

Cute baby boy playing with mobile phone in the park, digital technologies in the hands of a child. Portrait of toddler with smartphone

A baby’s first word seems as if it ought to be universally fascinating. Laden with the promise of a new life, a first word is a new person’s first expression of self, even if it’s just to label the dog, ask for food, or say hi. First words are more than cute; they’re existentially profound. They represent the threshold where noise becomes signal, the moment that interiority breaks its confines to greet the outside world.

And yet, for much of history, infant language wasn’t regarded as worthy of attention, and in many contemporary cultures it still isn’t. All babies, across time and space, transition from babbling to language at about twelve months of age, in spoken languages as well as signed ones, but not all parents and caregivers pay attention to that transition. That supposedly irresistible thing we call a “baby’s first word” is a romanticized milestone, shaped by social and economic circumstances, and it is surprisingly recent. The natural state of first words is to be disregarded, misheard, or entirely overlooked. Doting over them isn’t perverse—it’s just a modern, underappreciated luxury.

I was inspired to attempt a cultural history of “first words” by Germanist Karl Guthke, who wrote a definitive book about last words in the early nineties. He saw them as artifacts of each era’s conception of death. “There are styles of dying,” he noted, “so are there corresponding styles and fashions of last words?” In an aside, he dismissed first words, arguing they couldn’t tell us much about individual lives. They belong, he wrote, “with anecdotes of childhood, whose biographical value is inversely proportionate to their charm.” He had been musing on 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis whose reputation as a cold fish technocrat seemed to have been predicted by his alleged first words, in Greek: monos mou, or “all by myself.”

But first words, from the semiformed babble to the perfectly adult, have a tremendous amount to tell us about society. There are “styles and fashions” to first words, just as there are of last words, in the sense of what gets heard, recorded, or passed down. More importantly, the emergence of an interest in first words tracks closely with how Western industrialized societies became what anthropologist David Lancy calls “neontocracies,” or societies organized around the imperatives of caring for the very young. If you want to know how and why babies became their parents’ cognitive projects, tracking what those parents made of first words is a good metric.

In the cultural history of first words, we can say with confidence that they’ve always existed. But early utterances are rarely mentioned in historical materials. When they are recorded, it’s mainly been in more modern media, such as baby books, diaries, and scientific observations. By contrast, last words appear as far back as the Old Testament. The first recorded first word, were it to be found, would be a marker of modernity’s dawn.

In the eighties, Linda Pollock, now a professor at Tulane, examined dozens of English-language diaries from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries for evidence of how adults thought about their offspring. She found that only nineteen out of ninety-one diaries noted infant and child speech at all, and only nine diaries mentioned first words.

The earliest came from a Puritan judge in Massachusetts, Samuel Sewall, in early 1686, who recorded in his diary that his eighteen-month-old son, Hull, “speaks Apple plainly.” The father may have shown interest because for the sickly son to say anything at all was remarkable. The boy died three weeks shy of his second birthday. His first word was one of his last.

Sewall’s record of Hull’s “Apple” isn’t the oldest one I’ve found. The oldest comes from 1602, when a French physician named Jean Héroard was assigned to keep a diary about the growth and development of the first legitimate heir to the French throne in eighty years, the dauphin who would become Louis XIII. That first word, as Héroard wrote it, was , or, as we’d translate it into English today, “hey.” After Héroard, we have no record of another first word for another eighty-four years.

More than half of the mentions of children’s speech in Pollock’s diaries date from the nineteenth century. After the dauphin’s and Sewall’s “Apple,” the next first word was recorded in 1839, when Charles Darwin recorded his first son’s development, including his first word, “mum.” It meant “food” or “give me food,” Darwin tells us.

Such a banality was more significant for what Darwin made of it. He published his notes in 1877, and their appearance in German, Russian, and French simultaneously created a fad of diary-keeping among other natural historians, suddenly making the study of child development “a respectable branch of human biology,” as Dutch psycholinguist Willem Levelt put it. Many, if not most, of the diarists were men. “This new zeal for psychological knowledge has taken possession of a number of my acquaintances,” wrote British psychologist James Sully in 1881. “These are mostly young married men to whom the phenomenon of babyhood has all the charm of newness, and who import a youthful enthusiasm into their scientific pursuits.” Their diary studies fed the argument that the development of the individual follows a path along which the species had evolved. Thus first words provided a window into the minds and abilities of human ancestors in evolutionary time. “Mum” was, in a sense, a living fossil.

Darwin’s account was a response to one published a year earlier by French historian Hippolyte Taine about one of his daughters, including detailed notes about her early vocalizations. Taine wrote that her first words were “papa” and “tem,” which he took as her attempt to say tiens. He unpacked this word lovingly, considering it a “remarkable” word. It meant many things—“give, take, look.” “In fact,” Taine wrote, “she says it very decidedly several times together in an urgent fashion, sometimes that she may have some new object that she sees, sometimes to get us to take it, sometimes to draw attention to herself. All these meanings are mixed up in the word tem.” Taine’s delight is matched by his sadness when she stops saying it. “This is no doubt because we did not choose to learn it, for it did not correspond to any one of our ideas … we did not use it with her and therefore she left off using it herself.” Yet for a time, the word marked the arrival of an “outbreak of volition,” which the father reveled in.

Both Darwin and Taine granted firstness to certain phonetic strings that (they decided) the child invented rather than imitated. Darwin was sure that Doddy (as he called his son) “invented” his “mum.” They believed the first words of a child mirrored the emergence of language in our distant ancestors. “Speaking generally,” Taine wrote, “the child presents in a passing state the mental characteristics that are found in a fixed state in primitive civilizations, very much as the human embryo presents in a passing state the physical characteristics that are found in a fixed state in the classes of inferior animals.”

Around the same time that Darwin, Taine, and other Europeans were grappling with children and the evolutionary history of language, the first commercial baby books for recording important moments, including first words, began to appear in America. This is where noticing first words really began to take off. Where for Darwin and Taine the first word marked the baby’s transition into a human, in the baby book age it marked the arrival of an individual, not just a creature distinct among animals but a singular personality distinct from other selves.

At the time, an estimated one in four or five babies died before they reached twelve months old. Capturing various firsts, including words, encouraged parents to invest more in their children, who were now emotionally more valuable. At first, the baby books were aimed at upper-class women, descended from the tradition of recording baby gifts from family and friends. As their popularity grew among middle- and working-class families, they made it easier to think that individual babies and children mattered. At the turn of the century, local health departments began to offer their own versions of baby books. First words became one important moment in a baby’s development, which could only happen when infants had a good chance of surviving into childhood.

Online library records for about twenty baby books from the early twentieth century in a UCLA special collection showed that about two-thirds of them provided space for a “first word” or “first words.” The most effusive, a book from 1910, asked, “What were the first wonderful words?” One asks for “baby’s sayings” and another asks for “speech” and “vocabulary at 18 months.” About a third of the books prompted nothing of the sort, asking instead about first pictures, birthdays, Christmases, teeth, and trips. For example, The Biography of a Better Baby, published in 1910, figures that “better babies” eat, grow, wear clothes, get fresh air, and walk. (Note the absence of “talk.”) A French book from 1906, Le Livret de L’enfant, merely asks when the baby started to speak (“a quel age l’enfant a-t-il commencé a parler?), and The Edwardian Baby from 1908 gives language milestones (“should use syllables, such as ma, pa, na, ta, without any distinct meaning), but says nothing about first words.

This was also the apparent beginning of the belief that a baby’s first words could foretell their lives. In Babies Made Us Modern, a history of babies in America from the 1890s to the end of the baby boom, historian Janet Golden relates the various cues, both scientific and folkloric, which parents used to tell their babies’ futures. A baby book from 1912 tracked “first definitive signs of emotion at visible things,” “first attempt to reach for something,” and “first signs of reason.” Some other books mentioned the popular belief that if a child’s first movements were upward in space, it would ensure a rise in social station, which led to the practice of carrying newborns up the stairs. If the house had only one floor, the baby was carried up a ladder.

In the late sixties, my mother, on noting that my first words were “money” and “dubbaday” (after the defunct publishing house, Doubleday), erroneously predicted I would have a lucrative career in publishing. She remembered these words without writing them down—my baby book was Catholic and asked, instead, for my “first prayer,” “first Christmas,” and “first Mass.” I suppose that putting prayers in children’s mouths was better than letting them spontaneously jabber their unsocialized, profane thoughts. Though my first words were perhaps not prophetic, Picasso’s first word was “piz” (for the Spanish word for “pencil”) and Julie Andrews’s was “home.”

In some cultures, first words are prescribed—no matter what else the baby might be able to say, they’re not considered to be speaking until they say certain things. In American and Western Samoa, the first word is said to be tae, meaning “shit.” In Samoan culture, children are seen as, “cheeky, mischevious, and willfull,” as anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin put it, and such a word seems apt. Elsewhere, early utterances reflect a child’s otherworldly status. Anthropologist Nigel Barley notes that the Chamba of Cameroon and Nigeria believe that the babbling of infants and the very old is the language of the spirit world. “The former have not yet forgotten it, the latter are resuming it, hence their affinity with each other,” he writes. Meanwhile, the Baule of Ivory Coast maintain that babies babbling the ancestral language should be kept apart lest they use it to plot against the living.

In the well-loved children’s book Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems, a little girl, Trixie, loses her stuffed rabbit and then gets it back. When she’s reunited with her toy, she blurts out something she’s never said before, which her father considers to be her first words. Spoiler alert: they are “knuffle bunny.”

The book is a reminder that a “first word” is a product of the intersection between a baby’s intention to mean with an adult’s willingness to comprehend. “Knuffle bunny” isn’t actually the first thing Trixie says in the book. She had already tried to tell her father that her bunny has been left behind. “Aggle flaggle klabble!” she cried. “That’s right,” replied her father. “We’re going home.”

What’s true for “knuffle bunny” was also true with Darwin’s “mum,” Taine’s “tem,” Sewall’s “Apple,” and maybe even Héroard’s “hé.” The status of a first word as “first” is always somewhat arbitrary, dependent on an adult’s willingness to bestow meaning on the utterance. As linguist Catherine Snow noted in 1980, “The first word is a reflection of the culture’s decisions about many matters—the status of child versus parent, the attribution of intentionality, language socialization beliefs and practices, and beliefs about the social and communicative capacities of prelinguistic members, as well as theories of language and of meaning.”

She and other linguists solved this problem in a variety of ways: some ignored the single first word and counted instead the first four, ten, or fifty words (which the average child achieves by eighteen months), while others marked a first word stage. What became de rigueur were checklists of words given to parents to fill out. What that approach sacrificed in idiosyncratic detail (you would not be able to record that your child’s first word was “hé” or “tem,” for example), it made up for in scientific usefulness, because interesting patterns emerged nevertheless from the banalities.

Most early words are nouns, for instance, and girls appear to say more words than boys, no matter the language they are speaking or the culture they’re in. And we can venture to say that first words throughout time, whether they’ve been heard or not, have probably not differed much from the ones that contemporary babies say: animal sounds, names of pets and family members, food items, and greetings. Your first words were everyone’s first words, spoken over and over by endless generations of babies trying to break through.

 

Michael Erard is an author, linguist, and consultant. He is the author of Um..: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

Adult Coloring Books

AdSense