The Birth of a Word

Category: Bookbug

Have you ever stopped to consider how a child’s first word evolves? Maybe you’ve witnessed the process. As a parent, or a primary carer you may be able to hear the child practicing and manipulating sounds until one precious day a child utters its first words.

I came across this TED Talk, The Birth of a Word, by Deb Roy.

Click here to watch the talk (opens in a new window)


Deb Roy and his wife are both scientists who study language.  Before the birth of their first child they installed video cameras and microphones in almost every room of their house so they could trace the process of their son learning to speak. When the son would utter a word the research team would scroll through the very elaborate video footage to find all the occurrences of the child hearing this word in the home environment.  They would then also provide a physical map of when and where the word was spoken. For example the word ‘water’ was most often used in the kitchen. 

They watched the natural evolution of sounds such as gaga turning into intelligible words such as water.

“It’s not that my son was learning from linguistic environments, but that the environment was learning from him.” This quote from the talk struck me as quite interesting. The point Roy was making is that the primary caregivers would simplify speech when appropriate to give the child the chance to develop their speech and then naturally use more complicated speech. Looks like babies have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

I’d encourage you to watch the talk. The sheer enormity of capturing three years of family life on film is quite incredible. If you watch the video, you’ll see data of words spoken mapped into a landscape.  The landscape reflects the frequency of the word – when, where and how often it was spoken.  It’s a bit flashy on the data side of things. The video also moves from basic language acquisition to looking at the evolution of words in new technologies. But the main reason to watch the talk – it’s fascinating to watch the sound of gaga turn into the word water. With Deb Roy’s conscientious filming, you’re privy to watching the magic of the birth of a word.