One Friday in 1977, a 1-year-old named Nathaniel living in Leiden, in the Netherlands, said “mawh,” which his English-speaking parents enthusiastically greeted as his first word. It came with a pointing gesture, and all weekend, his parents responded by giving him what he pointed at, because mawh, they thought, clearly meant more. But when they got home from work on Monday, their Dutch-speaking babysitter excitedly told them about Nathaniel’s first word, the Dutch word for “pretty,” mooi, and that whenever he said “mawh,” she agreed with him, “Ja, ja, dat is mooi!” Yes, yes, that’s pretty.
After Monday, the baby was silent. Those nine hours with the babysitter, his mother later wrote, “either confused or discouraged Nathaniel sufficiently that he stopped using the word completely, and in fact failed to acquire any replacements for several months.”
“A full day of not getting ‘more’ was enough to cause him to reconsider this whole language thing,” his mother, the Harvard education psychologist Catherine Snow, told me. She noted that he was a late talker but “has made up for it since.”
Snow related her son’s woes with mawh in a 1988 essay about a problem faced by parents and scholars of early child language alike: There’s no bright line between baby babbling and first words. Rather, wordlike forms wriggle one by one from the phonological mush like proto–land animals crawling from Cretaceous seas. More might sound like mawh, light might sound like dai, and all done might sound like a-da. As a result, a baby’s true first word can be hard to pin down. To grant a wordish form any status, you have to account for children’s control of their tongue, lips, and jaw, but also what they think words do. They might say something consistently in a certain context even if it doesn’t sound like anything adults would recognize as a word, so does that count? What about something mimicked? What about a name?