What counts as a word?

I was talking to two friends recently who have babies who are close in age to T (11 months), and we talked about how you know when your baby said their first word. Before I had a baby, I never thought this would be so hard to determine! It’s pretty easy to pinpoint exactly when your baby rolled over or started crawling, and it seemed like first words would be equally easy to identify. Based on our experience, and talking to my friends, it seems that this isn’t so easy!

T has been babbling “mama” and “dada” for a few months now, but it doesn’t seem like he ascribes any meaning to those (he rarely says “mama,” but I would say his favorite utterance is “dada” – he’ll shout “dada” not only when he sees my husband, but also when he sees himself in the mirror, when he notices we’ve left the baby gate open, when he sees the vacuum cleaner, at random people walking on the sidewalk, or just randomly when he’s talking to himself – so I don’t think he’s attached “dada” to his dad). Based on that, I don’t think “mama” and “dada” count as words for T yet, since they seem more like he’s just playing around with making different sounds.

There are two things T says that seem closer to being “real” words. First, when we play with bubbles, T will pretty reliably shout “baba!” to get us to blow on the bubble wand. Secondly, there’s a book that T loves (“Dear Zoo”) that has a lion in it – T has been OBSESSED with the lion since the day he first saw it. For the past week, T has been starting to shout “LYYYYY” as soon as we turn to the lion page. Do these count as “real” words?!

I’m not sure! In the paper I reviewed here about infants’ transitions from babbling to words, the researchers considered a child’s utterance a word if: 1) what the child said matched the “real” word by at least 1 consonant and 1 vowel; 2) the utterance was communicative (e.g., directed at someone); and 3) it was clear the child was attempting a word (e.g., referring to a a particular object, imitating the parent, or the parent recognized what the child was saying).

Based on these criteria, it seems like “baba” for “bubble” and “lyyy” for “lion” might be considered words – T will clearly say these things in specific contexts (when he wants bubbles or when he sees the lion on the page), and in those contexts, we are interacting with him. They also match the “real” word (“bubble” or “lion”) by the beginning consonant and the subsequent vowel.

But, my hesitation in considering these first words for T is that he will say “baba” and “lyyy” either talking to himself or in contexts that have nothing to do with bubbles or lions. Also, he hasn’t generalized the concept of a lion to lions other than in this specific book – there’s another book that we read that features a lion (“Goodnight Gorilla”), and T has never said “lyyyy” when he sees that lion – so can that really count as a word if he doesn’t understand the concept of a lion? I don’t know!

One last little story about T and words! There was a book that T went nuts for that we checked out from the library – “The Naked Book.” He would start grinning, squealing, and kicking as soon as we pulled it out and he saw the cover. I think we renewed it from the library about 8 times before we finally returned it. Anyway, one time I brought it out, and, when T saw the cover, he shouted what I could have sworn was “NA-GUH!!!” – or, a pretty good approximation of “naked!” I couldn’t get him to repeat it over the next few days, though. I’m kind of relieved – I don’t know what I’d do if T’s first word had been “naked” (I guess lie in his baby book and say his first word was “mama”?!).



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