How Does One Word Become Two?

toddler, language acquisition, shush

My daughter has hit the two-word stage.

According to the textbooks, this is supposed to happen at about 20 months, and so Dahlia is right on time—and I’ve been waiting for this for roughly, well, 20 months. I’m well aware of the warnings about how life gets harder rather than easier when your child can actually communicate, but I’m ready. We seem to be on our way. The first two-worder was “Meh Mommy?” for “Where’s Mommy?” I knew this was genuinely two words rather than just, in her head, a single chunk of stuff when, a few days later, she started saying “Mommy coming?” in the same situations. This indicates that she knows “Mommy” is the name for her mother, and then there’s other stuff, either “Meh” or “coming”—ha, two things! Hot on the heels of this, besides the occasional “Meh Daddy?”, was—wouldn’t you know—”Blocks mine!” There’s quite a bit about the two-word stage that isn’t what it seems. For one, Dahlia is not saying more sophisticated things. She’s saying the same things in more sophisticated ways. She’s been expressing a desire to know where Mommy is for several months already—just via the one-word version of “Mama?” or “Mommy?” Asking that, she wasn’t posing the existential question as to whether Mommy exists as an entity. She meant, but just couldn’t express, “Where’s Mommy?” Now she can fill in more of the specifics of what’s on her mind. One day soonish it will be the full “Where’s Mommy?” After that will come things like “Hey, where’s Mommy?” or “Where did Mommy go?” and “Where’s my Mommy?” She’s thinking all of those things now. Even her current approximation is a miracle in so many ways. For one thing, she has the proper intonation. She says “Mommy coming?” with a certain melody of plangency that would be different if she had grown up in Bucharest, New Guinea or Beijing. That is, she sounds like an English-speaking toddler, just as she sounded like an English-speaking babbling infant. Babies master the basics of what linguists call the prosody of a language very quickly; some think they internalize it while in the womb. A six-month-old in Tokyo sounds different from one in Minneapolis. Go figure. People raising children are familiar with the phase, which Dahlia is in, when toddlers walk around “talking” fluently but incomprehensibly. The joy of this “talking” is that it has the melody of the language the child will eventually be able to actually communicate in. There are times when Dahlia is so convincing with her earnest observations, accompanied sometimes with a Borscht Belt holding out of the hands with palms upturned (I have no idea where she got this), that for a minute I think “Ma qualer vebooschma taq!” actually means something. I suspect it does, but I’ll never know. Nor will I have much to do with her becoming more articulate, other than just keeping her bathed in words and language. It’s easy to think we teach kids how to talk, and to an extent we do—mostly a few nouns, verbs and exclamation points. But the socially successful human being must master more than being able to name rabbits and flowers and say, “Ouch,” “Hooray” and “Where’s Mommy?” Neither I nor my wife taught Dahlia the word “where.” I tried—but think about it, how do you impart such an abstract concept? You can’t point to something that means “in what location is …?” If you point, you’re teaching the name of an object, not how to find it. If any of you have done a Rosetta Stone set, recall how that learning-through-photographs method had to bend over backward to impart “where.” Or coming.” One day she’ll know that -ing is an ending and be able to use it the way adults do. I couldn’t teach that to her at gunpoint—think of all the uses: Mommy is coming (progressive), Coming early is rude (gerund), Tomorrow Mommy is coming (future—but then isn’t will supposed to be how we do future, and if so, how do we know when to use -ing?). Somehow kids just drink this kind of thing in, along with everything else around them. When you teach linguistics and you get to child language acquisition, it can be hard to make the lecture really “land” short of showing footage of a cute child and letting charm fill in for substance. And the reason is that one is to talk about the babbling stage and the first-word stage and the two-word one, and well, you can imagine what comes after the two-word stage—and after that, they’re just talking. There isn’t much suspense in that process—it’s like saying, “You put one foot in front of the other one, then put that other foot in front of the first one, and you’ve moved forward!” Just as with the intricacies of staying erect and walking, what we want to know is how a person can manage that thing—and with learning language, no one really knows. Not in the way that you really want to know. Oh, specialists in syntax theorize that babies are born with an innate mental specification to learn nouns, verbs, endings and ways that they can be moved around. But besides how controversial it is that these researchers are describing anything that could be programmed by DNA (you might sense where I fall on the matter), all of it is very broad. None of it explains just how it will be that sooner rather than later, Dahlia will be using -ing and its English-specific nuances as idiomatically as a 50-year-old—or how it is that humans learn the language around them in this way regardless of intelligence level, disposition, or the alignment of the planets. Chimpanzees, genetically different from us so slightly, do not and cannot, and no other creature has evolved such an ability despite how advantageous it has been in taking over (and ruining) the planet. So for now I’m just enjoying the miracle. Even the isolated words are fun. The other day I said “Dahlia, shake the bag” and she did. And I wasn’t pantomiming while I said it, either. We never taught her that—she must have picked it up in day care. And remembered it! And we won’t even get into her habit of imitating me saying “Umm,” right down to the lower pitch of my voice. I wonder what she thinks it means?


  1. Priyanka -  October 26, 2014 - 9:06 pm

    What a cute article. I agree with pewpew that it is due to the airways..and to some extent the vocal chords as well (?).
    Anyways, animals babies have other instincts which human babies do not so I think it is pretty balanced.

  2. An Awesome Minecrafter With Several Awesome Minecrafting Friends -  January 6, 2014 - 1:46 am

    This was a very entertaining and enlightening article. However, in explanation of why chimpanzees cannot learn language in this way: Only man was created to have this ability. Animals are, well, animals – they may be similar to us in some ways, they may have “language” of their own, but man alone was created in God’s image. This includes the ability to have complex language. Thank you for reading this comment. [takes a bow and retreats]

    Minecrafters forever!! [pumps fist in the air and cheers loudly]

    • pewpew -  April 24, 2014 - 11:10 am

      Oh please, monkeys can’t talk because their airways are different than ours look up the science before you spread misinformation or bang on a bible to explain something that’s already been proven. There’s no proof of your claim, people who act like this in public always make me laugh except when they tell bull like that to children.

      • Lenae -  August 3, 2015 - 1:18 pm

        So maybe their airways are different, but the reason they can’t talk is because, as the minecrafter rightly said, man alone was created in God’s image. It’s not banging on Bibles. It’s the truth.

  3. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 24, 2013 - 4:19 am

    I thought this was going to be about how we start out with a single word and split it into 2 words. I even have an example of the reverse (2 words joining into 1): “to day” –> “to-day” –> “today.” (Same w/ “tomorrow.”) Go figure. That little girl is cute, tho.

  4. Martin Murphy -  November 22, 2013 - 1:55 pm

    In your publilcation list of Professor McWhorter you overlook his very fine book:
    OUR MAGNIFIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE: The Untold History of English
    ( 2008, Gotham Books, Published by Penguin Group ( USA) Inc.

  5. Martin Murphy -  November 21, 2013 - 3:16 pm

    In your publilcation list of Professor McWhorter you overlook his very fine book:
    OUR MAGNIFIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE: The Untold History of English
    ( 2008, Gotham Books, Published by Penguin Group ( USA) Inc.

  6. Neil -  November 20, 2013 - 4:19 pm

    I study linguistics and have a passion for language. Conversely, I have two daughters, one who is three and the other not two months old. I remember with joy listening to my eldest going through the canonical babbling stage, and even now as she is still acquiring language I sit back and take great interest in the linguistic choices she makes. Linguists derive so much more pleasure out of their children’s ‘baby talk’ than do others!
    A lovely article. Thanks!

  7. Patrick -  November 20, 2013 - 7:10 am

    well, John, re ur last questions. why is it that a wild animal can put down a calf and 4 hours later it is running full tilt with the herd, nose who it’s enemies r, nose where 2 find its food and water, n us, @ the top of the food chain, need around 20 years 2 recall what we learnt many lifetimes in the past. why can some children (u’ll b able 2 find some on Utube) can play piano b4 they’r 5 without lessons?

    Dahlia is remembering more quickly, than u probably did, what she already nose. now hold on 2 ur britches, when her grand children, who have not been bullied to life, come!!!

  8. Drachen -  November 19, 2013 - 11:23 am

    In response to “Neither I nor my wife taught Dahlia the word “where.”" I thought that’s what peek-a-boo was about.
    “Where’s mommy?”
    “There’s Mommy!”
    “Where’s Teddy?”
    “There’s Teddy!”
    Yes it’s a easy way to amuse a toddler for a time, but it also provides an object lesson in an abstract concept if you provide the attendant dialog.

    • pewpew -  April 24, 2014 - 11:12 am

      :D great explanation!!!


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