Thursday, December 1

There’s only one word I can say to my baby, but I can say it in almost any language | parents and parenting


‘If trees could scream,’ wrote the US humorist Jack Handey, ‘would we be so cavalier about cutting them down?’ ‘We might,’ came his reply from him, ‘if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.’ I have often thought about this quote not just because it’s funny, but because it’s taken on new meaning in those long, deadening campaigns of constant screaming that accompany newborn life.

It isn’t that mysterious at all, I suppose. Being a brand new human isn’t much fun. You’re overwhelmed, confused and constantly experiencing things you can’t yet understand. You also sleep a lot, so your conscious hours are an unbroken chain of rude awakenings. A lifetime of drudgery and disappointment has hardened us to the horror of being wrenched from the peace of sleep. I’ve been doing it for 36 years and still don’t much care for it. Imagine then, the baby’s lot; every moment one of being awoken to sights, sounds and smells you can’t begin to comprehend. Like awaking, on acid, at the apex of the Nemesis ride in Alton Towers, and for this to happen about 14 times a day. Who, if placed in this position, wouldn’t spend their whole day screaming and soiling themselves?

In the face of this, any soothing I try to offer seems somewhat feckless. I spend my time telling her, lovingly but stupidly, to be quiet. In fact, I don’t really say it at all, opting instead for a para-verbal fricative uttered in low tones. I speak of, course, of shhh: that not-quite-a-word used since time immemorial to bend babies to our will.

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Shhh, as we all know, is a voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant, although it’s not something I’ve thought about much before it became 90% of my vocabulary, and sleep became, like a trip to the big Sainsbury’s in town with the nice sauces, a special treat I only get a few times a week.

Theories as to the provenance of shhh vary, but the high static hiss is often said to recreate the noise of the womb, perhaps the light gush of blood which enveloped your miserable baby during happier times of bodily imprisonment.

Whatever the case, it’s certainly one of the easiest syllables to form with the human mouth and since it requires no action from the vocal cords can be uttered – and I can attest to this – indefinitely. As such, shhh exists in just about every language and culture on earth. A Croatian may write ‘ššš’, and an Iranian ‘hīs’, but both would be readily identifiable as shhh to our, or their baby’s, ears. Less is known about those languages, like Old English and Latin, which entirely lack the soft shhh sound in common speech, and therefore raises the charming image of Roman dads soothing their babies to sleep while saying ‘skkk’ like a broken photocopier.

Maybe that would be about as useful as my own efforts, which have mixed results to say the least. Her ears de ella are closed and her mouth is open, disclaiming all the horror of new things, and for now it seems there’s nothing I, or Wikipedia’s linguistic section, can do about it.

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Shhh I reply, knowing full well that’s easy for me to say.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats




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