Here are the first 50 words in the order that they were learnt by a child called Will: 1 uh-oh; 2 alldone; 3 light; 4 down; 5 shoes; 6 baby; 7 don’t-throw; 8 moo; 9 bite; 10 three; 11 hi; 12 cheese; 13 up; 14 quack-quack; 15 oink-oink; 16 coat; 17 beep-beep; 18 keys; 19 cycle; 20 mama; 21 daddy; 22 siren sound; 23 grrr; 24 more; 25 off; 26 tick-tock; 27 ball; 28 go; 29 bump; 30 pop-pop [fire]; 31 out; 32 hee-haw; 33 eat; 34 neigh-neigh; 35 meow; 36 sit; 37 woof-woof; 38 bah-bah; 39 hoo-hoo [owl]; 40 bee; 41 tree; 42 mimi [ferry]; 43 sss [snake]; 44 ooh-ooh [monkey]; 45 yack-yack [people talking]; 46 hohoho [Santa]; 47 bye-bye; 48 doll; 49 kite; 50 Muriel.
Isn’t that extraordinary? This fascinating list is taken from a paper in the Journal of Child Language, 1984, by Carol Stoel-Gammon and Judith A. Cooper. I came across it in something that the language expert David Crystal wrote.
There are surprises: the early incidence of light, and cheese; the postponement of mama and daddy until after quack-quack. Reduplicative forms feature strongly (oink-oink etc.) even if this is partly learnt from interlocutors. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the analysis of situations, as by uh-oh, alldone (said as one word), don’t-throw.
Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, quoted St Augustine’s account of learning to speak as discovering the words that signified objects. Ray Monk comments that Wittgenstein didn’t mean to argue against Augustine’s account, only to hold it up as a picture that falsely convinces us that ‘individual words in language name objects’. Little Will knew better when he first said uh-oh. His uh-oh predated Teletubbies, who say eh-oh for ‘hello’ and uh-oh, like him, for ‘oh dear’, or something more. (The OED records uh-oh formally from 1925 onwards.) Linguists use the term holophrasis for the expression of a combination of ideas by one word. I’m not sure you should call it primitive, because packing an abstract suitcase is not a primitive characteristic. In any case, we do it all the time. When the cat has overturned the last of the milk just before my husband arrives in a hurry for his porridge, I’d say uh-oh as readily as Will.