When babies make their first independent step with the inevitable bump on their bottom, not because they cannot take yet another step but because they are suddenly scared of this new development, it’s fascinating and enjoyable. Parents would talk about the first baby steps to everybody and anybody who listens (or not, as they case may be). Coherent conscious utterances are one more huge advancement in their growth. It is not always easy to realize that they are indeed talking, not just issuing forth a senseless stream of babble. My long-time observations lead me to think that this stems from two factors. One, babies cannot pronounce most words properly yet. Two, they tend to categorize instead. Naturally they get mixed up too as there are so many similar sounding words in any language. “Mama” and “papa” are very clear. They are easy to master and in fact they often appear even before the baby starts crawling. Though these two in some form are often considered to be the most usual baby’s first words, it is not always true. When there is an older sibling, the first word your baby is trying to produce may be the sibling’s name or nickname. Why? Well, there are two towering adults, but there is also somebody who is much closer in height and size. The ways those names are transfigured in baby talk are so numerous it is impossible to predict what they may sound like, but it is possible to recognize them. “Lia! Lia!” churtles the baby each time their older sister enters the room. Her name is Emilia, which is too complicated for the young speaker, so it becomes Lia.

The very first sentence a godson of mine produced was perfectly understandable: “Mama boom!” He would happily repeat it ad infinitum each time anything fell or made a noise. Their mother is the central figure in the little universe they know, so they may start every utterance with “Mommy”. Thus “Mommy fell”, “Mommy cat”, “Mommy dog” simply mean a two-sentence utterance, “Mommy” as a means of attracting her attention, and whatever the next thing is that stopped the baby’s eye.

Very often they would pick up part of the word or sentence, or the last sentence, and reiterate it, sometimes causing incomprehension among adults. “Year! Year!” a toddler shouts a dozen times in a row. His parents know what is happening. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” is what he heard for about a month; he picked up the very last word and sort of practiced it non-stop. Any long word may be transformed into a shorter one; usually it is the last syllable or two. “Fcent”, a tiny girl says with the perfect intonation imitating her mother’s favorite comment “Magnificent”.

A new mother worried that her two-year-old girl would misuse common denominations often, as she thought. I listened carefully and pointed out the obvious categories. All the toddler’s favorite foods were called “seese” (cheese) after her number one choice; any drink was “mik” (milk); anything with wings including angels was “bird”; any animal was “cat”. A woman was “Mama” and a man “Papa”. Man, woman, child, aunt, uncle were a bit too much for her yet. Since she never got mixed up among, say, male and female figures or foods and drinks, I suggested that the mother stop worrying and just wait a bit. I have seen the very young kid’s first reactions to rain and snow, for instance. “Bath! Sugar!” exclaimed a toddler looking out the window.

When I recently came to visit a godson who turns two soon, I brought my usual assortment of baked goodies. He sniffed the air and ran to the kitchen table, climbed on a chair, and started saying excitedly: “Mama! Bed!” He said it in turn to his mother and to me, obviously meaning “bread”. There is no distinction yet between, say, a loaf of bread and a cake for him. But when asked which he would like to eat now, he pointed at bread with one hand and at the cake with another, repeating “Mama bed!” So obviously he had the right idea about them.

Children begin speaking at various ages; usually boys are a bit slower than girls. If a child of two understands everything you say, points at things correctly but does not name them or produces garbled sounds, it is a good idea to take them to a speech specialist. The rule is simple: if it seems to you that there is a smell of sulfur, call a priest. In other words, if you are worried, consult a specialist.



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