Some Words About Wordlessness

October 15, 2013 | 2 6 min read

There is something about being the parent of a very small child, a child who has not yet begun to form words, that has exerted a subtle pressure on the way I think about language. In general, my investment in words is heavy and more or less literal, in the sense that they are the means by which I make, at least in theory, my living. Since my son was born six months ago, the first way in which my relationship with words has changed is this: I haven’t been able to get nearly enough of the bastards down on paper. When you work from home, having an infant around the place is not very compatible with getting things done – particularly when the home you’re supposed to be working from is a small apartment with quite thin walls through which the inescapable enticements of mother-and-baby laughter can clearly be heard. I am not making any kind of provocative or original statement here; Cyril Connolly’s stern pronouncement about there being “no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” almost inevitably crops up in discussions of this nature. And although it’s a little dire for my liking, a little absolute, I do think of it with rueful irony every time I try to sit down at my desk, because this desk of mine is located in a tiny guest bedroom, and in order to get at it, I have to pass through a very narrow passageway between wall and bed in which my son’s bulkily literal pram is normally stored. (I don’t know whether the pram per se is preventing me from making good art, but it definitely makes it awkward to maneuver myself into a position to try.)

The second way in which my relationship with words has changed is a little more difficult to quantify. (As a topic, on the other hand, it doesn’t necessitate my casting myself in the role of Grumbling Dad Who Can’t Get Any Bloody Work Done.) There are two primary dangers in pursuing this subject: that of pretentiousness and that of mawkishness. (These dangers are not, let’s remember, mutually exclusive: it’s lethally possible to be pretentious and mawkish at the same time – to be mawkishly pretentious or pretentiously mawkish.) And that’s because the subject is actually two subjects: language and early parenthood – specifically the way in which my wordless communications with my six-month-old son have led me to think about language in a slightly different way.

As an Irish person, of course, I am technically supposed to have an inbuilt playful suspicion of words. Even now, you see, I am using the language of my country’s former colonizers, and the historical bitterness of dispossession is supposed to leave a lingering aftertaste on my tongue as I speak, a residue of old distrust. We’re all natural born postmodernists here – or so we’re fond of thinking. (Possibly, the above-mentioned dangers of pretentious mawkishness are inherently more of a risk if you happen to be Irish.) But despite all this, I have always been a believer in the power of words to convey meaning, more or less. I would probably not be any kind of writer, or any kind of reader, if I didn’t think that there was at least the possibility of rendering the complexities of emotion and experience comprehensible through conversion into language – into spoken sounds, or sequences of little symbols on paper. They are, for better or worse, our only means of making transmissions, however indistinct, out of our various solitudes; they are basically all we’ve got.

Except that they are not all we’ve got, not really. This is something I didn’t know six months ago, but which I know now, because the profoundest, truest communication I’ve ever experienced has been with my son, who can’t yet speak, and who can’t yet understand anything I say to him in words. He’s a little savage; that’s how I think of him – a little wild animal who is only beginning the process of becoming what we call a person, only beginning the long fall into language. And I love this beastliness about him more than anything I’ve ever loved about anyone. I love the way, when he’s lying on his play mat kicking his legs industriously, and I kneel down and bring my face close to his, he’ll grab my ears in his little fists and pull me down towards him and start to bite me, to feast wetly on my nose and my cheeks. (He has no teeth yet, although the first is already on its way; all this will surely become less adorable when the teeth arrive.) I love this whole slobbery, dog-like business because I know – or feel that I know – that this means that he loves me. There is no possibility of his being somehow disingenuous about this, in the way there would be if he were to say it in words. Even if we don’t intend to convey anything but what we seem to mean by them, words are always attended by the watchful phantom of insincerity. But attempting to eat someone’s face – I don’t think it’s possible to do that insincerely.

Being a parent has, so far, been a pleasingly animal experience. And we keep thinking of him in this way, his mother and I; we keep telling ourselves what he’s like in animal terms. When he briefly manages to sit upright, and then topples over sideways in the effort to get his socks off his feet and into his mouth, he’s a bear cub. When he gets a hold of his little fluffy toy donkey, say, and bites down on it and shakes his head from side to side, squealing, he’s a puppy. And when he gets angry with me and lashes out at my face with his surprisingly sharp little fingernails, he’s a kitten. There’s something about a six-month-old’s wordless interactions with the world that brings to mind the simple truth that a human is an animal. This morning, as his mother held him and I rubbed some teething gel on his gums, she called him “My little creature,” and I felt the mammalian warmth of that word; and I thought, too, of its origin in Middle English – a thing created, a creation. Words are like that: always going about their own covert business, meaning so much more, and so much less, than we intend by using them.

But looking, gesturing, moving, and holding aren’t like that, and they are how he and I mostly communicate. He’s started doing this thing, for instance, where he’ll look at me and shake his head rapidly and then wait for me to reciprocate before he does it again. This is a kind of communication, but I don’t think it means anything as such. It just is what it is – not a way of referring to a thing, but a thing itself. It’s communication as play. His mother talks to him all the time, constantly telling him what she’s doing, what’s going on around him, who everyone is – “Look, it’s Daddy! Daddy’s just come in!” – which is what you’re supposed to do; it’s an overflowing stream of happy chatter, an immersion in the sustaining element of language. I’m not really sure why, but I find that my instinct as a father is to talk to him not in my language, but in his own, which is a wordless vernacular of squeals and bilabial fricatives and gurgles.

My instinct, I suppose, is to do what gets a reaction from him, what makes him smile and laugh, and so I have found that I am not above the cheapest of jokes, the goofiest of pratfalls, the silliest of sounds. Pretending to sneeze, for some reason, tends to amuse him greatly, and the longer the buildup the better the reaction. This, I find, is a reliable means of distracting him from his own annoyance if I happen to also be doing something like trying to put a jacket on him, or anything else that involves sleeves – sleeves being one of the more hotly contested matters in his daily dealings with his parents. And I do a late-period Tom Waits impression that always goes down well, but which I have to ration because it’s incredibly hard on the not-very-well-tempered clavier of my vocal chords. (There are only so many times you can belt out the chorus to “God’s Away on Business” before you start fearing you may have permanently damaged something, which is probably just as well given the song’s thematic unsuitability for nursery-based performance, the toxic leak of despair from its words.) He responds most of all to animal growls and yelps, and to movements – to tickling and bouncing and dancing – that don’t mean anything but that they’re happening, and that it’s good that they are.

Of all the moments of mute communication we share, the one I love the most right now is when I’m getting his pram out of the boot of the car, and I look through the rear windscreen to where he’s strapped into his rear-facing child seat, and for some reason he’s always thrilled to see me in this precise situation, and there’s always a big smile and an effulgence of delighted recognition in his eyes. There doesn’t need to be any words in a moment like this; I’m not sure if language could add anything to what is being transmitted, to what is being shared. It’s too simple, too elemental, for words to have any bearing upon. There are first words that I look forward to hearing, of course, but for now this happy speechlessness is everything.

Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.


  1. Well put and beautifully written. I’ve been reading some of your other articles and truly appreciate your literary and day-to-day observations.

  2. I have just discovered your wonderful writing and I found this piece very moving. What a beautiful testament to your relationship with your son. As a writer myself I share your love of words and I found my children’s first attempts at language fascinating. They are now aged eleven and fourteen and I still find it incredible that they can speak….if you know what I mean! It was so interesting to watch as their language evolved and I jotted down some of their earliest phrases for their baby books, just on post-its. Those little snippets of speech have gone into our family folklore, such as mispronunciations like ‘gogurt’ and ‘bumbrella’. Personal favourites of mine, are my daughter telling me she had a ‘toyful of hands’ and my son’s very logically worked out name for ‘yesterday’ which was ‘last morrow’. Thank you for reminding me of these, I’m sure that by now you and your family have your own collection!

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.