Greg Bales

First Words

We’ve been strict when naming G’s firsts. For example, his first steps don’t count until they’re independent. If I let go of his hand while walking with him, he walks forward a few steps, and then he topples over. He’s close, but he’s not a walker until he takes that first conscious step into the abyss.

We decided that G wouldn’t be a talker until he used signs. Mimicry wouldn’t count. That first step to signification came about three weeks ago, not long after he became enamored of books and began carting favorites to us to read.1 I heard him say book one Sunday morning while he was rifling through his library for Global Babies; Kathy heard him a day later. It was babyspeak, of course, imperfectly pronounced, but we thought for sure that it was real. But then G never said book again, despite our prodding. (And we prodded a lot!) He has since spoken several other one-offs: water, Jane, and Newton. Just this weekend, he picked up the salutation Hi and perhaps Dad.2 But spoken language really took hold this past week when G began saying dog. (His word consists of the initial “d” plus a protracted “ah.” He doesn’t yet close the word off with the velar plosive “g.”) As of today, when he sees Newton, he says “dog”; when he calls Newton from the other room, he says “dog”; most importantly, when he sees another dog while we’re out on a walk, he says “dog.” The word is arbitrary enough to be used specifically and generally; it’s signification for sure.3

So here’s my question: What is the value of a one-off when it comes to assigning first words? What should count? Can we trust that G really said book, or were we imagining it, hoping for something that wasn’t in fact there to hear? Should we say dog is G’s real first word because it’s in regular rotation on the jukebox of his vocabulary? I admit that I have a sentimental wish for book to win out. How sweet it would be to know that in deed and word, he’s on his way to becoming a bibliophile. However, I can’t deny dog its place. What do you think? Parents, how did you assign first words to your babies, anyway?

1 It wasn’t long before he decided that carrying books was too inefficient and took to throwing them at us instead.

2 Today when I walked in the door, G may have even constructed the sentence “Hi Dad!” It sounded like like “Hye-da!” but it surely did resemble a greeting.

3 Two weeks ago he had a follow-up visit with the NICU. (They keep track of all preterm babies’ growth up to two years of age.) The nurse practitioner was asking us whether G had any words. We told her about book, but said we hadn’t really heard him say much else. “Doesn’t he refer to each of you?” We stared at her blankly. “You know, like Ma or Da?” No, we said. He just yells at us. “Hm,” she sniffed in reply.

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September 27, 2011

I should clarify footnote 3: The High-Risk Infant Follow-Up Program follows NICU infants whose parents agree to participate. So we actually signed up to have this nurse practitioner give us a complex about G’s development.

October 18, 2011

My experience with Shelly and a “one-off” was in the Dr.‘s office when she was about 16 months old. There was a bird silhouette cutout taped to the cabinet door. She pointed to it said “bir” and never said it again. I think you can allow GEB to have “book” since he was looking through them at the time AND he said it two different times.

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