The Symbolic Process and its Integration in Children

Chapter 4: First Words

John Fordyce Markey

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IT is the third period, the basis for which has been laid by babbling, cooing and random articulation, when the child begins to repeat or attempt to repeat the words of others which concerns us. With this parrot stage already established, the problem is to determine when the true language symbol is integrated.

The data regarding speech development is in the main observational and thus lacks the control which the laboratory gives. The so-called first word is generally listed when a definite vocalization is used to designate a definite act or object. It ought to be clear immediately that such a first word may be wholly on the basis of the conditioned responses as shown in Fig. A, minus the interchange, without involving a true language habit. The attempt of a fond parent to determine the first word used " with meaning " is to be taken with some reservation.

Bateman (1917) has summarized 35 of these "first words" obtained by 28 observers (Table I). The largest group falls at 10 months; 42.85% are in the 10-11 month group, and 74.28% said the first word under 12 months (Table II). The acts or objects indicated by these first words are

14 persons (including two cases where either dady or dog were first) 40.0%
18 acts associated with persons (including 3 cases of da for there) 51.4%
1 animal (adding the two cases cited above)   2.9%
2 mechanical sounds    5.7%
_______________________________________________________ _______
Total 100.0%


Table I
First Words
Source Bateman, 1917
Authority Sex Time, months Word Meaning of word Time of Next word, months
English Speaking Children —          
Bateman  1914 F 10.5 Hello   Same time
Bateman  1915 F 10.0 Daddy   Same time
Bateman  1916 F 11.0 Bye-bye   Same time
Bohn   1914 F   9.0 Daddy   Same time
Boyd   1914 F 11.0 Dada or dog   Same time
Brandenburg 1915 F 10.0 Bye-bye   12
Darwin 1877 M 12.0 Mum food Later
Grant  1915 F 12.0 Bye-bye ?   Same time
Hall 1896-1897 M  8.0 Bye-bye ?     9
Jegi 1900-1901 F 12.0 Mamma   Same time
Major  1906 M 14.0 Baby   Same time
Mickens    1897-1898 F 11.0 Mamma   Same time
Moore 1886 M 10 Papa or Mamma  
Moyer 1911 F   9 Hark   Same time
Nice    1915 F 14 Mamma  
Pelsma 1910 F 10 Daddy or dog   Same time
Pollock    1878 F 13 Dada   Same time
Shinn  1905 F 10 Da There Same time
 Total 18        


Table I
First Words
Source Bateman, 1917
Authority Sex Time, months Word Meaning of word Time of Next word, months
German-speaking Children —          
Ament 1899 F 11.5 Mam mam Food 15
Linder 1882 F 9.5 Papa Father Same time
Linder 1898 M 13 Da There 15
Preyer 1905 M 11 Hatta Gone 13
Schneider 1903 F 10 Da There 11.5
Schneider 1903 F 10 Take take Dancing 111.5
Stern   1907 F 9 Ata Father 15
Stern   1907 F 10.5 Didda Tic toc 11
Stern   1907 M 11.5 Papa Father 12
Strumpell 1880 F 10.5 Ssi-ssi Tea machine 10.5
Stumpf 1900 M 9.5 Papu-papu Food 12
Togel  1905 M 14 O (hoch) Up 15
    Total 12        
Other Languages          
  Deville   1890 F 13.5 Papa Father Same time
  Taine 1876 F 10 Wawa Dog Same time
  Gheorgov    1905 M 13.5 Dza [1] There [1] Later
  Gheorgov    1905 M 15 Boc Up (?) Later
  Altuszewski 1897 M 13 Papa Food Same Time
   Total 5        
[1] dza = daj, gib


Table II.
Time of Using First Word
Source Bateman 1917
Age, Months 8 9 9.5 10 10.5 11 11.5 12 13 13.5 14 15 Total
Number, Children 1 3 2 8 2 4 2 3 3 2 3 1 35

Adding all those pertaining to persons, including the two cases where dog or dady was also used, they comprise 91.4 % with only three words falling outside this category -dog, didda for tic toc, ssi-ssi for tea-machine. This is one indication of the role of persons and their behaviour in these so-called first words. No doubt parents have facilitated the application to themselves of the sounds which the infant can more readily utter. The prevalence in so many languages of some form of the root ma-ma for mother, pa-pa for father, and other similar derivations strongly suggest this (Buckman 1897, Jespersen 1923, pp. 154-160). The parents and adults are apparently better imitators than the infant.

It is quite a burden upon credulity to accept these words as real language habits. Such words as da for there, Jidda for tic toe, ssi-ssi for a tea-machine can scarcely be anything but direct responses to stimuli, and not the production of absent stimuli. For instance, it seems quite naive seriously to maintain that a nine-months-old baby said " hark " with symbolic reference. It is highly questionable whether any out of the whole list can be put in any other category than the parrot talk of infants, not beyond the conditioning shown in Fig. A, minus the interchange. The criterion used for their selection is usually this. The definite association of a name with an object does not of itself indicate real language. However, this does not diminish the fact that these words are associated with persons, which, of course, is to be expected in view of the close association of people with the learning of language. The role of persons is further indicated by the fact that if the names for the parents are not the first,

(42) they are among the first words. The acquirement of proper names is also significant. But it is a rather curious fact that quite a number of observers exclude proper names in their computations of vocabularies. This is remarkable, even ridiculous, in view of the fact of the association of persons in a child's life. Mrs. K. C. Moore found in her investigation that proper names comprised her child's total vocabulary at one year, and also played an important part thereafter (1896). Among the first words, usually occurring very early, is also a word to designate the child itself, generally the word " baby." As the time of the beginning of true symbolic behaviour is obviously not given in these so-called first words, the question must be deferred until more data are considered.

In the above list of first words even those which are not connected with acting organisms are associated with action in the form of sound. The action content of words will be further indicated in the next chapter.

After the child has once begun to acquire symbolic designations, the process soon becomes rapid and pronounced. The cases upon which a vocabulary count has been kept [1] are generally so lacking in any basis of random sampling that figures given for the total vocabulary at different ages cannot be said to represent the population as a whole for these ages. Consequently, no general curve of learning can be drawn from the figures ; at best they are only approximate. The comparability of one year with another in such data is also questionable, due to varying factors. There is a tendency to notice and report large vocabularies and to overlook smaller ones. Also, probably due to greater convenience, there is apparently a larger number of observations on children in the more educated or well-to-do families, which would tend to select in favour of larger vocabularies. Of course, beginning with the school period, selection obviously enters tending to produce a larger vocabulary figure, especially at certain

( 43) ages The averages in Table III, Section A, are given for what they may be worth, and are only suggestive. The vocabularies averaged by Mrs. Nice are taken from different sources, but she makes a practice of deflating for plurals, verb inflections, and the like according to Bateman's rules, so that the figures are thus more representative and more comparable. However, the rapidity of increase is evidently too steep for the general population

Table III.
Section A.
Age Authority No. of Cases Average
1 Bateman (1917) 35 9.5
2 Nice (1918) 25 508 Probably unduly large
3 Nice (1917) 11 1338
4 Nice (1917) 7 1843
5 Nice (1917) 2 4225 Very large; probably nearer 2500
6 Nice (1917) 2 3103

Section B
Smith’s test
Average size of vocabularies [1]
Age Number of cases Number of Words

— 8

13 0
— 10 17 1
1—0 52 3
1—3 19 19
1—6 14 22
1—9 14 118
2—0 25 272
2—6 14 446
3—0 20 896
3—6 26 1222
4—0 26 1540
4—6 32 1870
5—0 20 2072
5—6 27 2289
6—0 9 2562
1 (1926) — figures for less than two years, from list from mothers



TABLE III — continued.
Kirkpatrick’s test
Grade. Average
II 4480
III 6650
IV 7020
V 7860
VI 8700
VII 10660
IX 12000
Frosh, HS 13400
Soph, HS 15640
Junior, HS 16020
Senior, HS 17600
Normal Sch. 18720
College 19000
Graduate Students 20000 to 100000 est
1 (1907) --Based upon sampling from dictionary, estimates obtained from among 2,000 answers of school children mainly in Massachusetts cities, and upon Bryn Mawr, Smith, Columbia, Brown, Pratt Institute.

Brandenberg’s test[1]
Grade Number of Cases Average
II 22 4000
III 78 5429
IV 228 6887
V 245 8207
VI 378 9613
VII 300 11445
VIII 255 12819
IX 72 13504
X 71 15340
XI 71 13974
XII 41 14975
1 (1918) —From 2,000 pupils in 16 schools in Wis., Mo., Colo., from towns of 1200-30000

for these ages. Observations have it that girls begin to talk somewhat earlier than boys and keep ahead of them in- later development as well (Stern, 1924, p. 143). If this is true, Bateman's average for one-year-olds is probably high, as about two-thirds of them are girls. Gesell (1925, p. 217) says that the median 12-months-old child has at least three or four words.

(45) Nice (1918) gives as standards of early speech development the following: the first word by 15 months, 200 words and the sentence by 2 years, Goo words and all parts of speech by 3 years. Besides the figures obtained by directly counting vocabularies, those obtained by vocabulary tests are also significant and give probably a more accurate basis for purposes of comparison on account of the fact that the tests have been standardized and used upon larger numbers of children. Some of the figures obtained by vocabulary tests arc also given in "Table III, Section B. Whipple's (1908) study in general corroborates the figures of Kirkpatrick and Brandenburg. Terman's figures (1912, not included here) are lower, but are perhaps not so comparable with the other figures, due to the method of selecting the test words. They were selected from a smaller total (18,000 vest pocket words) and with reference to the more commonly used words. It is possible that although his test is a good battery test for intelligence scoring, it may still not test the total vocabulary range.

There is a great amount of individual and group variation. For instance, Paula Lambroso (Chamberlain 1904) `found in a study that 50 children belonging to the well-todo and educated families had much larger vocabularies than 100 children of poor families. Both in the precocity with which they interpreted the words and the exactness reached the children of the former families exceeded those of the poor in the proportion of 2 : 1. She concludes that the question is not one of defect of intelligence, but of differing situations. Drevers (1919) in a study of Edinburgh Free Kindergarten children, coming from one of the poorest localities in Edinburgh, gives the following averages taken from a sample which he tried to make representative

4 children about 3 years averaged 376 words
5  “ ” 4    “ ” 451 “
12  “ ” 5   580 “

Some of these Kindergarten cases, according to Drevers, were not mentally normal. Due to the  small amount of

(46) time spent in observation in at least four cases, these averages for the children are a little low, the three and four year averages probably being the most unreliable. Based upon similar methods of observation and other data, he estimates as a normal vocabulary from 1,000 to 2,000 words for a child of five years in good social circumstances. Allowance for an underestimation of the poorer vocabularies would still leave a substantial difference. Alice Decoeudres has worked out a language measure for young children and has used it for the ages 22 to 72. The results show the language acquirement of the working-class children to be below that of the children of educated classes. Stern (1926, p. 176) calculates from her figures for the two groups that, on the average, the children of the educated classes are eight months ahead of the working-class children of the same age (2 1/2 -- 7 1/2). Social influences obviously create individual differences and there are also structural characteristics both inherited and acquired which may influence speech behaviour.

The number of words in common among the children of even the same family may be relatively small. Gale (1900) found among three children of the same family, each vocabulary taken at 22 years of age, that out of 2,170 words, only 489, or 22.5'%, were in common. The two younger children had only 16% in common. Holdren's two children had 40% in common (Gale igoo). Drevers found among the above Free Kindergarten children that the common words were as follows (I have computed and include only percentages based upon the total vocabulary, 2,116 words for the 21 children)

19 subjects had 2 % of the total words in common
15 “ ” 7 %  “ ” “ ” “ ”
10 “ ” 16 %  “ ” “ ” “ ”
3 “ ” 52 %  “ ” “ ” “ ”

Thirty-three per cent. of the total words appeared in only one vocabulary, not being in common. Drevers considers that the fundamental words in the vocabulary of

(47) this type of child may be reckoned under the conditions of the investigation, as all words given by 75% of the children. The 15 cases would probably be a high 75% due to the four short observations. These had Only 7%, or 148 words in common out of a total of 2,116 words. These facts indicate some of the wide diversities which may enter into the individual learning curves, of which some examples are given in Chapter VI.


  1. See Magni (1919), Doran (1907), Kirkpatrick (1907), and others for summaries ; also cf. Brandenburg (1918), Whipple (1908), Terman (1912, 1915), and Smith (1926) for vocabulary tests

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