First Words

My daughter is one. She can’t yet talk in human words but she has a small range of sounds and acts that correspond in her mind to a particular animal. She can make a strained noise that does sound like a cow – she has to extend her neck and tip her head up to raise the sound from her belly – this is what the cow does when it makes its sound too. She can run her breath through her teeth to do an impression of a snake hissing and she has a similar noise that is supposed to sound like a bee. She can pop her mouth in a way that is supposed to be like a rabbit nibbling. I helped her learn it but it isn’t something I’ve seen rabbits do – they tend to be quiet animals and only give off a peal of high-pitched bubbling sounds when fighting or under attack.

Perhaps her small partly-toothed mouth can form animal sounds more readily than words, perhaps she is interested in things with faces, perhaps I associate her with other dumb creatures and so teach her dumb languages, perhaps she can communicate with animals and the communication is out of my range, perhaps I want to mimic what other human mothers do. My daughter isn’t the only one who makes these noises – almost all the children her age, in our culture, do the animals. Most other one-year-olds also say some words like Papa or Water or No. In comparison to the words I can’t see what purpose the animal noises serve.

When we go for a walk my daughter likes to alert me when we pass something that has a particular interest to her. Her interests include dogs, other babies and young children, the library and Greggs the bakers. The same d-d-d-sound seems to be applied to the babies and the dogs she points at. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that she thinks these creatures, which invariably appear to her as attendants of adults on leashes, reins, in carriers or loaded into a vehicle, are the same species of being – small-bodied, mobile but captive.

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