A Cultural History of First Words

Michael Ezard in The Paris Review:

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.”

More here.