In the beginning was the word. Only it wasn’t the word. A baby knows no difference between words and noises, hums, hisses, beats, music. And other senses; olfactory, sight, taste, are melded into one. I am synesthetic; I feel the rolls and hisses of hospital trolleys like toy car wheels up and down my arm. The faint sound of cotton wool being torn makes my tongue inflate and my gums itchy. When someone strokes my arm or my leg or cheek, it is off-white, or very light pink. And this is only the beginning: later on, jazz music will taste like runny egg and electronic music like a bitter coffee.
For now I am a baby though, and all these sounds I am a silent witness to are the same message but at different pitches and tones. They are no more than a way to become more allied with the world. All they are saying to me is live, live, become more alive, come here. In my cot, the first pull is the sound of my own heartbeat in my ear, pulling me into the depths of the earth’s core, or taking me closer to the stars, taking me further into the night, to sleep. A dull, thudding, primeval sound which later I will find there is no symbol for on sheet music, just like there is no accounting for the inevitable broken piano key which, when pressed, sounds as though there is felt separating it from my ears.
As though I now need to be galvanised into action, soon I am introduced to onomatopoeia; cars ‘woosh’ along our floor, flies ‘zap’ hands ‘clap’ and water goes ‘splash’. I must admit they didn’t choose the most auspicious moment to do this, because I want to copy these sounds, I really do, but at best I can manage a gargle, a burble or a guttural, ck sound from the back of my throat, or the vowels ‘o’ ‘a’. I learn how to sing ‘Old Mcdonald had a Farm’ and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ using just vowels.
At 3 or 4 I lie in my bed and turn words and their sounds round in my mouth. It is like eating a sweet but with no taste. I am discovering my capacity to enunciate, exploring my teeth, wondering what words would sound like backwards and what a sentence would sound like if two or more letters were swapped around in it; words wrapped around words. I wonder if anyone else does it too but dare not ask; playing with words is like eating chocolate from the sweetie jar or watching too much tv. I wonder if there are any sounds we don’t have in English and why? And if there are words we don’t have and why? I make clicking and popping sounds with my mouth and snapping sounds with my teeth lying in my bed on the bottom bunk, almost silently, language puzzling me. Does anyone else know? How many sounds are there and why don’t we use them all? With my ear pressed to my pillow and vocabulary going round in my head I can hear the springs in the bed squeaking, the blood pumping in my head and the rhythms of the house.
Onomatopoeia morphs into proper words and sentences and book titles and authors and music, rhymes, imperatives; Rumplestiltskin, Thumbelina, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, baa baa black sheep, Are we nearly there yet? Eat your dinner. Language is often wrapped up in shiny packages, with smiles and exaggerated tones. Children’s TV presenters OOHH and AHH, and I want to touch them through the screen. I need this enthusiasm to latch onto language’s rhymes and tones, to become part of the scheme of cogs and wheels turning. Language lures me into life.