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The Baby's First Word, and Word is "ka"

I’ve been watching Iver’s phonological development closely and wondering what his first word will be, but after reading around in the child phonology literature, I realized that he already has a first word, and that we hear it every day. It’s “ka.”

Children’s first words often aren’t like adult words; they’re called “nonsense words,” “protowords,” “prewords,” “call-sounds,” or “quasi-words” by the experts. He still babbles — long strings of “dadadada” or “babababa” come out of him, and he hasn’t produced an adult-sounding word yet. Or maybe he has.

It all depends on what the meaning of “ka” is. Misty and I have long conversations about this. She thinks it means “car,” since he often says it when he’s pointing at a vehicle, even though those are often trucks, even those in books. You can ask him to point to the truck in the Byron Barton Plane book, and he does. I think it’s an attention-management word, like “look at that, isn’t that interesting.” (I also think it can’t be right to assume that his first word would necessarily be a label, especially since this particular kid has been very good from very early on at grabbing people’s attention with his face.)

One piece of evidence against that is that he doesn’t say it when he’s looking at everything he obviously finds interesting. The other morning, he pointed at something outside the window and said “ka,” and you can assume it’s car since those were the most distinct objects out there, but then he was in the bathroom and said ‘ka” pointing at a small statue of the Hindu god, Ganesha. That’s my evidence that “ka” is not car. Today in the coffee shop, he pointed at a painting that had large circles on it and said “ka,” as well as to the ceiling fan. So it’s entirely possible that it’s not car or vehicle but circly thing. And if “ka” isn’t an attention-management sound, I can accept that. I’m now probing him by pointing to other circly things and saying “ka.” Which, of course, assumes that if adults use kids’ protowords back to them, the kids understand.

My friend Gary has another suggestion: “ka” is a vedic term for “god,” which would explain the pointing at Ganesh and the pointing at wheels as another symbol of divinity. In other words, inside another cultural frame, circly things and Ganesh are part of the same category, not distinct.

Whatever “ka” means, his obvious attention for wheels — and for giant mechanical objects whose operation must seem magical, imbued as they are with huge amounts of life force, such as trucks and airplanes — raises the question, what did kids’ attention (and their protowords) go to in the age before vehicles? Was it trees and horses? Massive carriages?

The other thing is that by the definition of protowords, he’s had another word for nearly two months, which sounds like “eh.” It may even have more than one meaning, depending on how he inflects it. “Eh” is definitely an attention-management tool — he’d often say it across the room at his mother or me, as if to say, “hey you over there I’m over here look at me” or “hey you over there I’m over here looking at you.” Which would, again, totally fit with the character of this child.

Unfortunately, neither “eh” nor “ka” are the sort of stuff out of which family legends, or even good stories for warming the hearts of his future friends, are made.