From the mouths of babes
I love a good story, and I love words. The former is relatively self-explanatory. As for the latter, I enjoy how some words feel on my tongue. I like the sharp, hard consonants of the word “iconoclastic”; I revel in the billowy sound of “mellifluous,” which is what my five-month old son, Merret, sounds like when he sleeps.
When I watch Merret slumber — and hear his melodious breathing fill the air — it reminds me of stories about my infanthood and my introduction to the world of spoken words.
My verbal proficiency began ignominiously. I didn’t open with the standard “mom” or “dad”; I even rejected the common nouns that might catch an infant’s attention, like “cat” or “dog.” Instead, I began with onomatopoeia, a simple “Vroom.”
As my father explained to me recently, “You had more interest in the automobiles that whisked past our small apartment than other ancillary things like your mom, dad or sister.” Beyond copying sounds, though, there is no genuine consensus on my first real word. Perhaps I said “mom.” I might have said “dad.” One thing that my parents agreed upon was my preferred word as a baby: “Mine!” In fact, I yelled this exclamation to many an infant. Apparently, I was a rotund baby and movement was not my forte. Thus, fellow babies would crawl over to my pile of toys, pilfer one, and scoot away. My king-sized rump precluded me from standing up for myself, so I screamed my protests.
My oldest son, Alex, has a story attached to his first words, too. My wife singlehandedly raised him while I worked. She nursed him from birth; my milkless husk offered no assistance to my wife when the boy’s hungry cries pierced the late-night quietude. She would nurse him and coach him verbally: “mamamamamama” she would say as Alex sucked. Her cajoling only seemed fair, so I joined the act, too. “Mamamamamama,” I would say as I burped the boy.
As any parent can tell you, the best laid plans of moms and men can go wrong. Alex repaid his mother in Benedict Arnold fashion: “Dada” he exclaimed. He then poured salt into my wife’s wounds by generating a daily mantra out of this newfound word: “Dadadadadada,” he would utter throughout the course of a day.
Now, Alex is 9, and he is very much a wordsmith, if not a budding poet. He uses terms like “minions” and “exacerbate” with ease. But Alex couldn’t care less about his verbal exploits. He’s more interested in what his brother is going to say. Merret, as previously noted, is five months old, and he’s already experimenting with sound and language.
Right now his gibberish phrases sound vaguely Scandinavian to me. He elongates his O’s. During out morning “chats” he says things like “Imboookie.’ Perhaps my years in Minnesota — where displaced Scandinavians rule — have somehow found their way into Merret’s genetic material. I can almost see the boy responding to my morning queries of “Are you a happy boy, Merret?” with “You betcha!”
A significant concern that my wife and I have is whether Merret will pick up on some common phrases that he hears, phrases that aren’t exactly what you want your children to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if his lexicon begins with an admonition of our dog, Nibbles.
Nibbles is a dachshund, and dachshunds like to break rules. So, Nibbles is constantly going through the garbage, chewing on something he shouldn’t, sneaking into the cats’ litter box for some Tootsie Rolls. Needless to say, my wife and I respond to these antics loudly. “Nibbles, NO!” my wife says almost hourly. Personally, I fear that Merret will unleash the phrase “Damnit dog,” which will result in my wife admonishing me.
To be honest, I don’t want Merret’s first word to be “Daddy.” I’d be much happier if he could repay his mother with a verbal present that acknowledges that she is the primary caregiver. But the way things look right now, he’s focused on a different member of the family. Merret loves his older brother. Alex makes Merret laugh. He calms his baby brother down when a meltdown seems imminent.
Vegas odds say that Merret’s first word will be Alex. Of course, my wife and Alex say that it’s already happened. Merret has twice looked Alex in the eye, smiled and said “Aleshkrp!” and everyone knows that when a baby says “Aleshkrp” twice, it’s not coincidence or chance. He’s saying his brother’s name. ME? I’m going to nod my head and agree with my wife and son — even though I know better. I know that “Aleshkrp” is Scandinavian for “Damnit Dog!”
David Weinshilboum lives in Davis, California with his family. He teaches English at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. He also has a sister who, when a toddler, said “Moose me!” which meant she wanted to be picked up. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org