Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/June 1876/Lingual Development in Babyhood

Popular Science Monthly Volume 9 June 1876  (1876) 
Lingual Development in Babyhood by H. Taine




JUNE, 1876.



THE following observations were made from day to day and taken down on the spot. The subject of them was a little girl, whose mental development took the ordinary course, being neither precocious nor the reverse.

From the first, probably by reflex action, this child cried incessantly, kicked, moved all its limbs, and perhaps all its muscles. It was also doubtless by reflex action that, during the first week, she moved her fingers, and even grasped for some length of time the finger of another person. Toward the third month, she began to touch with her hands, and to stretch out her arms, but did not yet know how to guide her hand; she essayed movements of the anterior members, experiencing the consequent tactile and muscular sensations—nothing more. In my opinion, out of this enormous multiplicity of movements, continually repeated, will be separated, by gradual selection, intentional movements having an object and attaining it. During the last fifteen days (age, two and a half months) I have observed one movement which is plainly an acquired one: on hearing its grandmother's voice, the infant turns its head in the direction from which the sound proceeds.

There is the same spontaneous training for the use of the voice as for movements. The vocal organ acquires dexterity just as the limbs do. The child learns how to produce such or such a sound just as it learns how to turn the head or the eyes, i. e., by constant efforts.

Toward the age of three months and a half, while in the country, the child was brought into the open air, and laid upon a carpet spread in the garden. Here, lying on her back or on her face, she for hours at a time would work with all her limbs, uttering a multitude of different cries and exclamations, consisting exclusively of vowel-sounds; this continued several months.

By degrees consonants were added to the vowels, and the exclamations became more and more articulate. This process resulted in a sort of prattle of great diversity and completeness, which would be kept up for a quarter of an hour at a time, and repeated ten times a day. The sounds (vowel and consonant), which at first were vague and very hard to discriminate, became more and more like those uttered by adults, and the series of simple cries came to be, in some measure, like a foreign language which we do not understand. The infant is pleased with its prattle, like a bird; one can see that she is happy—that she smiles with pleasure—yet it is nothing better than the chirruping of a bird as yet, for the child does not attach any meaning to the sounds she utters. (Age, twelve months).

She has acquired thus much, in great measure, by her own endeavors and unassisted, but she has gained a little by the aid of others and by imitation. First, of her own accord she produced the sound mm; this amused her—it was for her a discovery. So, too, she of herself produced another sound, kraaau, emitted from the windpipe in deep gutturals. These two sounds were repeated several times in succession in the hearing of the child; she would listen attentively, and now she repeats them at once on hearing them. The same is to be said of the sound papapapa, which she at first uttered several times at random and by herself, and which was then repeated to her a number of times, in order to fix it in her memory. She soon uttered this sound at will, with easy, unerring execution (though without understanding what it meant), as simple prattle. In short, example and education have served only to call the child's attention to sounds which she herself was already attempting to make; to direct her preference to these, to make them uppermost among the host of similar sounds. But the initiative all came from herself; and the same is to be said with respect to gesture. For months she of her own accord attempted all the movements of the arms, flexion of the hand at the wrist, bringing the hands together, etc. Then, after instruction and repeated effort, she learned to clap hands, to hold up the two hands, as in the gesture of astonishment, etc. Example, instruction, and education, are only channels in the bed of which the stream flows; its source lies higher.

To see that this is the case, one has only to listen to her prattle for an hour: it is wonderfully flexible. I am satisfied that here every shade of emotion—surprise, joy, vexation, sadness—finds expression in varieties of tone; herein she equals or even surpasses the adult. On comparing her with animals, even those best endowed in this way—such as the dog, parrot, singing-birds—I find that, with a less-extended gamut of sounds, she far surpasses them in the fineness and the abundance of her expressive intonations. Delicacy of impressions and delicacy of expressions are the distinctive characteristics of man as compared with animals: here is the origin of language and of general ideas. Among animals, man is, what some great and ingenious poet is among laborers and peasants: in a word, he is cognizant of a multitude of shades and tints, even to a whole class of shades, which are unnoticed by them. This is further seen both in the kind and in the degree of man's curiosity. It is easily seen that, commencing with the fifth or sixth month, infants, during the succeeding two years or more, give all their time to making experiments in natural philosophy. There is no animal, not even the cat or the dog, which makes such continual study of all bodies within its reach. Every day, the infant of whom I speak (age twelve months) touches, feels, turns over, lets fall, tastes, and experiments upon, whatever comes under its hand; whatever the object may be—a ball, doll, rattle, toy—once it is sufficiently known, the infant leaves it alone: it is no longer a novelty; there is nothing more to be learned from it; it no longer interests the child. This is simple curiosity; the child's physical wants, its desire of food, have nothing to do with the matter. It would seem as though already in its little brain each group of perceptions tends to complete itself, as in the brain of a child that possesses language.

She does not yet pronounce any word to which she attaches a meaning, but there are two or three words to which she attaches a meaning on hearing them uttered. She daily sees her grandfather, whose portrait, far less than life-size, but a very good likeness, has often been shown to her. During the past two months or so (from the age of ten mouths), when any one asked her the question, "Where is grandfather?" she turns to the portrait and laughs at it. Before her grandmother's portrait, which is not so good a likeness, she makes no such gestures, nor does she give any token of knowing what it is. For a month past (from the age of eleven months), whenever she is asked, "Where is mamma?" she turns toward her mother. So, too, with her father. I would not go so far as to affirm that these three actions transcend animal intelligence. A little dog, who sits by my side, in like manner understands what is meant when he hears the word sugar: he will come from a distance to get his morsel. In all this there is nothing but association: in the case of the dog, between a sound and a certain taste-sensation; in that of the infant, between a sound and the shape of an individual face; the object designated by the sound is not yet a general character.

I believe, however, that now (age, twelve months) a step farther has been taken; witness the following circumstance, which for me is decisive: This winter the child was daily taken to her grandmother's, and the latter very frequently showed her a copy, in colors, of a painting by Luini representing a nude Infant Jesus. On showing her this picture she was told that "this is baby." During the last eight days, whenever, in some other room, we ask her, "Where is baby?" (meaning herself), she turns toward any picture that may be there, whether it be a painting or an engraving. Hence "baby" signifies, for her, some general notion, whatever paintings and engravings of persons or landscapes may possess in common; i. e., if I am not mistaken, "baby," in her mind, signifies something variegated in a shining frame. Indeed, it is plain that the objects painted or designed within the frames are so much Greek to her, while she must be deeply impressed by the glittering frame and the patches of color, light, and shade, within its border. Here, then, we have her first general term; the meaning she gives it is not ours, but nevertheless it is evidence of original work done by the infantile understanding. For, though we have supplied the word, we have not supplied the meaning.

(Age, fourteen months and three weeks.) The gains of the last six weeks have been notable: besides the word "baby" she now understands several others, and of these she pronounces five or six, giving to each a meaning of its own. Mere prattle is succeeded by a beginning of intentional and determinate language. The principal words pronounced by her now are papa, maman, tété (by which she means nurse); oua-oua (her term for dog), koko (hen, cock), dada (horse, wagon), mia (cat, kitten), kaka, and tem. She acquired earliest the two words papa and tem: this latter word is very curious, and well worthy of serious consideration.

For fifteen days she pronounced papa without a purpose, without a meaning, as simple prattle, and as an easy and amusing exercise of articulation. Later came association between this name and the image or perception; and then the portrait or the person of her father brought to her lips the sound papa, and this same word, when pronounced by another, awoke in her the memory, the mental image of her father. Between the two states just noticed there exists an insensible transition, so that, at certain times, the first state still persists after the second state has been attained; at times she still plays with a sound, though she understands its sense. This is very easily seen with respect to some of her later acquisitions, for instance the word kaka. This word she often repeats without purpose or intent, as prattle, much to the displeasure of her mother. Again, she frequently utters the word purposely, when occasion offers. Further it is evident that, as in the case of the word "baby," she has extended the meaning of this term. Thus, for instance, on seeing in a flowerbed the track of moistened earth left by a watering-pot, she repeated this word again and again with evident appreciation of its meaning. For her it signifies what wets.

She shows great capacity for imitating sounds. She has seen and listened to fowls, and now repeats their koko far more accurately than we can do it, with the guttural intonation of the animals themselves. This is simply a faculty pertaining to the windpipe, but she possesses another faculty which is far more striking, a faculty that is par excellence human, namely, the power of noting analogies. This is the fountain-head of general ideas and of language. We point out to her on the walls of a room the figures of birds painted red and blue, a couple of inches in length, saying once only, "Look at the kokos." She was at once conscious of the resemblance, and for half a day she took the liveliest pleasure in being carried up and down along the walls of the room, enthusiastically crying out, at the sight of each bird, koko! No dog, no parrot would ever act thus, and, in my opinion, we have in this fact the essence of language. Other analogies she perceives with equal readiness. The first dog she ever saw was a little black one belonging to the house, who barks frequently; from him she framed the word oua-oua. Very soon, with but slight assistance from those around her, she applied this word to dogs of all sizes and of every breed that she saw in the street; later she applied it to porcelain figures of dogs—a still more noteworthy fact. Nay, on seeing, day before yesterday, a month-old kid, she called it oua-oua, thus naming it after the dog, which is the nearest form, rather than after the horse, which is too big, or the cat, which has a different gait.[2] Herein we perceive a trait characteristic of man: two very dissimilar successive perceptions leave a common residue, a distinct impression, solicitation, impulsion, which results in the invention or adoption of some mode of expression, either by gesture, cry, articulation, or name.

I come now to the word tem, one of the most noteworthy and one of the first pronounced by her. All the other words are probably attributives, to use the language of Max Müller,[3] and a person has no difficulty in discovering their meaning; this is probably a demonstrative, and, as we had no term with which to translate it, we took several weeks to discover its meaning.

At first, and for more than two weeks, the child pronounced this word tem as she did the word papa, without giving to it any precise meaning; she thus practised dental articulation followed by a labial, and the thing afforded her some amusement. By degrees the word became associated in her mind with a definite intention, and at present it means for her give, take, see, look. She pronounces it very perfectly, several times in succession, and with earnestness, her aim being now to get some new object which she sees, again to have some one take her up, or to attract attention to herself. All these meanings are comprised in the word tem. It may be that it is a form of the word tiens, which had often been addressed to her in a somewhat similar sense. But I am rather inclined to suppose that this word was coined by herself to express her principal desires, viz., to be taken in the arms, to get the objects she wants, and to attract notice. If such is the case, then this word is a natural vocal gesture. This view is rendered more probable by the fact that she possesses other words, of which more anon, and which are evidently the products, not of imitation, but of invention.

(Fifteenth to seventeenth month). Great progress made; the child has learned to walk, and even to run. She is gaining new ideas every day, and understands a number of phrases, such as these: "Fetch the ball;" "Go and doudou to the lady" (i. e., fondle her and let her kiss you); "Come and stand between papa's legs;" "Go down there;" "Come here," etc. She is beginning to distinguish between the tone of anger and that of pleasure; she quits doing anything forbidden with severe countenance, or with voice expressive of disapproval; of her own accord she frequently shows a desire of being fondled. But she has learned or invented but few new words recently. Her chief new words are Pa (Paul), Babert (Gilbert), bébé (baby), bééé (nanny-goat), cola (chocolate), oua-oua (anything good to eat), ham (eating, I want to eat). There are a number of other words which she understands, but is unable to pronounce, such as grandfather, grandmother. Her vocal organs, not being sufficiently practised, do not as yet reproduce all the sounds she knows, and to which she attaches meanings.

Cola (chocolate) was one of the first dainties she ever tasted, and she prefers it to all others. She gets a lozenge daily during her visits to her grandmother; she knows the box in which the bonbons are kept, and keeps pointing toward it until it is opened.

Bébé.—We have spoken of the curious meaning she at first gave to this word; by degrees, under the influence of education, she has come nearer to its ordinary sense. Other infants have been shown to her, and called bébé; she herself has also been called by this name; now she answers to it. She has been shown the reflection of her own face in a mirror, and told to look at bébé, and now she goes herself to the glass, and, on seeing the image, laughs and calls "bébé!" Starting from this, she gives the name of bébé to miniatures, pictures, and statuettes. Here again education has produced a result that had not been anticipated: the general character perceived by the child is not the one that we could have desired her to perceive. We have taught her the sound, and she has invented the meaning.

Ham—(eating, I want to eat).—Here she originated both the sound and the sense. This sound she first uttered during her fourteenth month. For weeks I took it to be mere prattle, but at last I noticed that it was uttered always, without exception, when food was in sight. Now she never fails to say ham whenever she is hungry or thirsty. This again is a natural vocal gesture.

Oua-oua.—It was not till three weeks ago (end of the sixteenth month) that she employed this word in the sense of something good to eat. For a while we did not understand what it meant, for the same sound had long been used by her, but always to signify dog. In this new meaning the sound has oscillated between va-va and oua-oua. In all probability the sound here written oua-oua is for her twofold, in accordance with the two different meanings she attaches to it. But my ear does not detect this difference. The senses of infants, which are less obtuse than ours, perceive delicate shades which we do not distinguish. It is worthy of mention that she strictly applies this term oua-oua to food and drink; the act of eating or drinking is expressed by am, or ham. Thus, when she hears the dinner-bell, she says am, not oua-oua; but at table, when seated before some article of food, she says oua-oua, and much less frequently am.

On the other hand, the word tem (give, take, look), of which I have already made mention, has during the past two months fallen into desuetude. She never pronounces that word now, nor can I find that she has replaced it by any other. Doubtless the reason of this is, that we did not care to learn it: it answered to none of our ideas, inasmuch as it coupled three very distinct notions.

On summing up the facts already stated we reach the following conclusions; it remains for others to modify them by observing other infants:

At first the infant cries, and employs its vocal organ in the same way as its limbs, spontaneously and after the manner of reflex action. Spontaneously, too, and because it finds pleasure in being active, the infant later exercises its vocal organs in the same way it exercises its limbs, gaining the perfect use of them by repeated essays and by a process of selection. From inarticulate it thus passes to articulate sounds. The variety of intonations which it acquires evinces in the child great delicacy of impression and of expression; hence the faculty of forming general ideas. All we do is to aid it in grasping these ideas by suggesting our words. To these the infant attaches ideas of its own, generalizing after its own fashion rather than ours. Sometimes it invents not only the meaning of a word, but the word itself. Several vocabularies may succeed to one another in its mind, new words obliterating old ones; several different significations may successively be attached to one word; several words invented by itself are natural vocal gestures; in short, it learns a ready-made language as a true musician learns counterpoint, or as a true poet learns prosody: the child is an original genius, which adapts itself to a form built up bit by bit by a succession of original geniuses. If there existed no language it would discover one, or find an equivalent.

This series of observations was interrupted, owing to the misfortunes of the year 1870. The following notes may serve to show the mental state of an infant: in many respects this state is that of primitive peoples in the poetical and mythological period.

A water-jet, which this infant saw daily for three months, always gave her new pleasure. The same is to be said of the flow of a river as seen from a bridge. The flashing, running water was plainly for her an object of extraordinary beauty, and she would keep exclaiming, "Water, water" (age, twenty months). A little later (thirty months) she was profoundly impressed on seeing the moon. She wanted to look at it every night. When she walked abroad it seemed to her that the moon also was moving, and this discovery gave her delight; as the moon made her appearance in different localities, according to the hour, being seen at one time in front of the house, and again in the rear, she would exclaim, "Another moon! another moon!" One night (age, three years) she wanted to know where the moon was, and, on being told that it had gone to bed, she asked, "Where, then, is the moon's nurse?" All this very closely resembles the emotions and conjectures of childlike races; their profound wonderment in presence of the great phenomena of Nature; the influence exerted upon them by analogy, language, and metaphor, leading them to form myths of the sun, the moon, etc. Suppose such a state of mind to be universal at any period, and we can readily foresee what religious ideas and legends would be the result; in fact, we have instances of this process of development in the Vedas, the Edda, and even in Homer.

If we speak to the child of an object at some little distance, but which she can represent to herself definitely enough, having seen the object itself or something like it, her first question always is: "What does it say? What does the rabbit say? What does the bird say? What does the horse say? What does the big tree say?" Whether it be an animal or a tree, she always treats the object as a person; wants to know what it thinks, what it says. By a spontaneous induction, she pictures it as like herself or like us—humanizes it. This same tendency is found among primitive races, and it is all the stronger the more primitive they are.

It requires long time and many an effort for the infant to attain to ideas which to us appear simple. When this child's doll had its head broken she was told that now the doll was dead. One day her grandmother said to her: "I am old, and shall not remain long with you; I shall die." "Your head will be broken, then." This she repeated several times. Even yet (age, three years and one month), to be dead means, for her, to have a broken head. Day before yesterday a magpie that had been killed by the gardener was tied to the top of a pole for a scarecrow; on being told that the pie was dead the child wished to see it. "What does the pie do?" she asked. "She does nothing; she will never stir again, she is dead." "Oh!" For the first time the idea of final immobility has entered her mind. Now let us suppose a people to stop at this idea, and to have no other definition of death than this. For them the Beyond will be the Sheol of the Hebrews—the place where the motionless dead live a vague sort of life. For her yesterday means in the past, and to-morrow means in the future; neither of these terms signifies for her just one day. Here, again, she gives too large a signification to words. And an infant scarcely employs a single word that is not destined later to receive a more restricted meaning. Like primitive peoples, infants incline to conceive large and general ideas. The child presents, in the transitional state, mental characters which we find in the fixed state in primitive civilizations, just as the human embryo presents in the transitional state physical characters which are found in the fixed state in certain lower classes of animals.

  1. Translated from Revue Philosophique by J. Fitzgerald, A.M. vol. ix. 9
  2. When the Romans first saw the elephant they called it the Lucanian ox. Thus, too, savage tribes that had never before seen a horse gave that animal the title of big hog. (See Müller's "Lectures on Darwin's Philosophy of Language.")
  3. Lectures on the "Science of Language," sixth edition, vol. i., p. 309.