Formation of Language


SEVERAL years ago, being interested in speculations on the development of language, and having a son a few months old, I instituted a series of minute observations on the part of the entire family as to his utterances. The result, curious at the time, has received a new interest from a later observation. The nursery maid who had charge of the boy did not understand a word of English, Italian being the language spoken with the domestics exclusively. The first articulations of the child were evidently meaningless mimicry of what he heard from us, and it had so much the character of English speech that the maid supposed he was speaking English. There was no attempt to catch or repeat any word—only a gabble, a gibberish, in which we were not able to detect any resemblance to any word of any language. This continued for several weeks, when we perceived that he began to repeat certain sounds to which we found that he attached definite meaning, and as this progressed he left off his incoherent imitation of our language, and he soon had coined a small vocabulary for himself, comprising words for bread, water, milk, &c. The first word we distinguished was as nearly as I can render it “bhumbhoo,” meaning water. This phase continued some weeks also, when he began to couple our words for his objects with his own—as “bumbhoo-aqua,” when he wanted water. Little by little he dropped his own words and began speaking only Italian. The three stages of the development of language were perfectly distinguishable, but I supposed that the words the child contrived were purely arbitrary, and am inclined to think so still; but during a late visit to Greece I went over to Crete, and visiting in the family of an old Cretan friend, I was interested in a little boy—his young son—who was in the state of development of speech which I have noted in ours as the second. He had only got two or three words, but that for water was precisely the same as that which my own little boy had invented. Have any of your readers who have the watching of child-talk made any analogous observations?

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STILLMAN, W. Formation of Language. Nature 43, 491 (1891).

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