I’m not a philosopher. I know less about Plato than I do about Play-doh. But I have been thinking a lot lately about when a word is truly a word.

For instance, if you were watching this past Monday Night Football game at a bar, and I was the sort of parent who brought their year-old daughter to MNF at Hooters and I was sitting next to you (not knocking it if you’d do this), when Philip Rivers threw his 1st interception, there’s a shot my daughter might point to the screen and say ‘doggie’. After Rivers’ 2nd pick, she might say ‘fishy’, then after the 3rd pick, ‘bubbles’, and after the 4th pick she might say ‘up’, then after the Chargers lost, she might point to the HDTV and say ‘baby’.

This is a completely hypothetical situation that I’ve concocted, but my daughter is a few months past her first birthday and she’s saying all kinds of things that sound like words and each time she does my heart melts. I find the whole process amazing in every way.

My wife and I have the book that every new parent has that asks you to write down all her “firsts”, including her first words. She definitely says words, but I kind of feel like as of right now, they’re not really words, they’re just sounds she’s mimicking. For me, I feel like for her first word to truly be her first ‘word’, she has to acknowledge what the word refers to. If she says ‘baby’, she should be pointing to a baby. Simple enough criteria, I think. Maybe I’m being a hard ass, but I’ve overheard too many people bragging about their kid “talking” at 11 months, when, in truth, after a few probing questions, I find out that some people define “talking” as a baby calling a lamp post “ma ma”. When this happens, I feel like other people are cheating (not that we’re in a competition).

To go back to Plato, if a word has no meaning or no frame of reference, but simply sounds like a word that an intelligent person might say, is it a word or a sound?

Yes, when my daughter says the word ‘apple’, it could, occasionally, refer to an apple. It could also refer to an orange. Or to anything round. Or to my nose. Or to Rachel Bilson on the cover of my wife’s People Magazine. Really, it could be anything. Until she grabs a watermelon and says, “mmmm watermelon”, it’s just a mimicked sound…same as when a Macaw in a pet shop says, “Have a nice day”.

Did I just compare my daughter to Toucan Sam? Yeah, maybe I did. Anyone agree there should be some set standard for this?


Photo Credit:  Nicky Eichmann