Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 85–98

The Significance of the Emergence of Language and Symbol in the Development of the Young Infant



DOI: 10.1007/s10943-006-9089-7

Cite this article as:
Waldron, S. J Relig Health (2007) 46: 85. doi:10.1007/s10943-006-9089-7


In this paper I have suggested that the mother–child dyad is the foundation for integrity between the psychic self and the physical self, and the capacity of these to relate to the external environment. I have also argued that the development of language and symbol are creative agents in the development of consciousness in the young infant, and that the emergence of language and symbol are an expression of the opening of a potential space which allows differentiation from the mother and facilitates the infant’s ability to distinguish fantasy from fact and self from other.



This paper explores the mother–child dyad as the foundation for integrity between the psychic self and the physical self, and the capacity of these to relate to the external environment. It postulates the notion of language and symbol as creative agents in the development of consciousness in the young infant. In this context, it is the emergence of language and symbol that enables the identification and expression of feelings, phantasies and images that have hitherto been located and contained within the mother’s body. The emergence of language and symbol is an expression of differentiation from the mother. Whilst their emergence does signify a new orientation, they must be understood as an emerging essence and not truly representative of the psychic reality. Like the symbol, language can only reflect and never fully represent the full content of the psyche.

My perceptions are based on the observation of a baby who, for the purposes of this paper I have called Sam, and serve to illustrate the developmental process from birth to 21-months-old: from a state of de-integration, with a ‘proto-ego’ in place, where neither language and symbol are present, through to a stage in which rudimentary ego-structures are formed. [Please note: For reasons of confidentiality I have the written permission from the family involved in this observation to write and publish this paper.]

In this transition of development, pathways are observed forming, pathways which both contain and transform psychic opposites.

For Jung, a symbol is something that emerges spontaneously from the psyche as the best possible expression for that which is as yet unknown and mysterious. It refers both to the conscious rational sphere and the irrational unconscious sphere, thus expressing the totality of the psyche. This two-fold nature of the symbol means that it can never be fully explained in a rational sense, since it has a complexity of meaning that extends from the personal, individual experience to the collective, universal and archetypal. Jung regarded the symbol as a transformer of energy and the means by which differentiated consciousness could be obtained. He saw it not only as an expression of intrapsychic processes, but something that can exert an effect on the psyche, uniting psychic opposites and restoring the balance between the ego and the unconscious.

In Jung’s view, consciousness begins in childhood and develops out of the unconscious. ‘One can actually see the unconscious mind coming into existence through the gradual unification of fragments.’(Jung, 1928, par. 103) This process is comparable to the evolutionary development of consciousness.

He writes

Consciousness is phylogenetically and ontogenetically a secondary phenomenon... Just as the body has an anatomical pre-history of millions of years, so does the psychic system. And just as the human body to-day represents in each of its parts the result of this evolution and everywhere still shows traces of its earlier stages—so the same may be said of the human psyche. Consciousness began its evolution from an animal-like state which seems to us unconscious, and the same process of differentiation is repeated in every child (Jung, 1968, p. 381).

It is generally accepted that children begin to use language between 12 and 18 months of age. Long before they utter their first understandable words, they arduously apply themselves to the task of analysing the complex phenomenon called language.

Mothers have often claimed that their child ‘doesn’t talk, but she understands everything.’ In a study of the extent to which ‘everything’ is understood, Janellen Huttenlocker found that children as young as 10 months do indeed comprehend many language expressions but that mothers have been guilty of a common parental error—they read more into the child’s behaviour than was possibly intended by the child. The children studied understood a great deal more than they could say but they used cues other than words to determine the mothers’ meaning (Rogers, Wright, & McClelland, 1994, p. 477).

In this study, Huttenlocker was able to trace the beginnings of language understanding. She discovered that children have, to some degree, an understanding of the meaning of words, ‘the semantic component of language’; before they begin to use words. Babblings are the first sounds infants make that resemble speech. By repeating syllables, infants experiment with and practice making the sounds that will eventually be put together into meaningful words.

The fact that during the first year the babblings of infants the world over are the same—whether or not particular sounds will find their way into later speech—has been taken as evidence that each human infant possesses the potential to master any language (ibid, p. 478).

The development of language is a uniquely human capacity. Language constitutes our subjectivity and it also defines us as human. Language is the primordial law that defines kinship relations, that regulates and superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of nature. Until there is language, until concept is symbolized and reflected upon and given concrete form, there is no sense of the thinking operative self. Language is the construct by which I am perceived by myself as an operative other. This is the subject and predicate of being.

My experience of conducting an infant observation on a baby whose family group was bi-lingual and bi-cultural has had profound implications for developing my understanding of the emergence of language and symbol, and their function in containing psychic opposites.

Family background

The family consisted of the infant under observation, his 32-year-old mother, a New Zealander, and his 36-year-old Italian father. The infant Sam was their first child. This family were also part of a large, extended Italian family. The father was very involved with the parenting of Sam, as was his mother. The Italian grandmother understood very little English and it was left to the younger members of the family to translate English into Italian and vice versa.

On my initial visits it was evident that whilst the mother had bonded with Sam, she was very unsure of herself and her mothering, especially in the presence of her mother-in-law. It was evident to me that in the initial stages of the observation, it was I, the observer, who acted as a container for the opposites, in much the same way as a mother holds and transforms the intense emotions of the infant so that they are manageable for him, providing a model of ego functioning which he gradually introjects. Such experience can be seen as a precursor to symbolisation, where it is the symbol that functions as the container.

The primal relationship

In his book ‘Children as Individuals’, Michael Fordham notes that birth interrupts the mother–child intra-uterine dyad. It has been argued by psychoanalytic theorists that this birthing process has an impact on the psyche of individuals. Fordham writes

Yet the baby appears singularly unaffected by this drastic event: apart from a cry that accompanies the first inspiratory act, there are few or no signs of distress; soon the baby seems comfortable, and he re-establishes the essentials of his inter-uterine existence by sleeping: once again the primal unity is re-established (Fordham, 1969, p. 112).

The child lives in a world that is understood through the primal relationship with the mother. This relationship is one of ‘participation mystique’. The world for the infant is the mother’s body world. The infant has no initial perception of itself as a separate being. With physical touch and stimulation the infant begins to encounter physical realities that stimulate its sense of being and otherness. Therefore, when a child expresses the desire to take, to grasp, or to eat, it is attempting to explore and understand its world, and it is in this process that differentiation begins.

Extract of observation 1–8 weeks

My initial observation of Sam took place within an hour after birth. According to both parents the labour went well and the mother managed the birth without the need for medication. During this visit the mother told me that she had been very careful about what she took in the form of medication. She had also given up smoking and consuming alcohol during the pregnancy. Sam was asleep in her arms during this observation. In the room were both parents and Sam, but also both grandmothers. There was also the father’s younger brother and his wife and the mother’s two sisters. It was quite noisy, with lots of laughing and talking. What I noticed was that in the midst of this noisy room, Sam was asleep in his mother’s arms. She gently stroked his cheek with the fingers of her right hand. This stroking was to become a feature of the observation and came to symbolise the attachment between Sam and his mother. During this initial observation Sam slept peacefully, wrapped in his blue ‘bunny rug’, and I could see his hands which were open and lay in front of him. His breathing was regular and he looked completely relaxed and totally unaware of the noise level or the number of people in the room.

This “being asleep” during my weekly observations became a pattern during the first four weeks. When I visited Sam would be asleep, either in his mother’s arms or in his crib. The crib was never far from the mother. During the observation I used to feel quite sleepy myself and it was a struggle for me to remain alert in this womb like atmosphere. But despite this, I was still able to observe the quiet processes that emerged as the infant became part of this new world which he had entered.

Sam was from the beginning a very easy going and relaxed baby. The mother talked freely about her nervousness of being a mother, but she also felt that she and Sam could work things out between them. The grandmother would often come into the room and speak to the mother in Italian and she would translate. One day after such an occurrence the mother said with a laugh ‘my mother-in-law thinks you should tell me to wake Sam up because he sleeps all day and all night’. She also added that Sam was feeding well and gaining weight.

It was on my fourth visit that I noticed Sam was not sleeping quite so soundly. As he lay asleep in his crib, his mouth was moving as if sucking, his hands rhythmically opening and closing. It was as if he was dreaming about being on his mother’s breast.

Sam’s sleeping pattern remained the same until the eighth observation. I arrived and was greeted at the front door by the mother. Sam was in her arms and he looked directly at me for a few minutes before turning his head towards his mother’s face. The mother told me that she was just about to give Sam a bath and then a feed. I followed them through the house to the warm lounge and positioned myself so that I could see Sam in the bath.

The mother placed Sam in the crib. He began to cry, but the mother spoke to him. When he heard his mother’s voice, Sam turned his head in the direction of his mother’s voice and smiled when he saw her face. The mother leaned over and stroked him on the cheek with her fingers. The mother smiled in response and then began to undress Sam. She continued to talk to him about his upcoming bath and as she removed his singlet she tickled him on the tummy. He smiled and kicked and waved his hands in obvious enjoyment. When Sam was undressed the mother picked him up and held him close, kissing him on the head before placing him gently into the bath. Sam kicked and splashed with his feet, his arms waving about and his body full of excitement. The mother gently washed him before picking him up and placing him down on a large towel. He cried as she tried to dry and dress him. The mother spoke to Sam and told him that she knew he was hungry and dinner wouldn’t be long in coming. Sam appeared quite agitated and excited; he waved his arms and legs, his whole body pulsated with emotion and he cried, but when he heard his mother’s voice, he smiled and waved his arms and legs as he was being dressed. When he was dressed, the mother picked him up and placed him over her left shoulder before sitting down in the armchair ready to feed him. When seated, she laid Sam across her knee. Sam turned his head towards his mother’s breast and cried. He inserted his fist into his mouth and sucked but withdrew it and continued to cry. He kicked his legs during this sequence. The mother placed the knuckle of her forefinger into Sam’s mouth whilst she exposed her nipple. Sam sucked on his mother’s knuckle but continued to cry between sucking. The mother turned Sam onto his side. Once in this position Sam turned his head, his mouth opened expectantly and with some help from his mother he latched on. The mother stroked Sam on the cheek with the fingers of her right hand. At this point in the observation the grandmother came into the room and spoke to the mother in Italian. At this point Sam stopped sucking the nipple in his mouth and appeared to be trying to locate the voice. The mother stroked Sam on the cheek and said, ‘It is only Nanna.’ She then spoke to me, ‘My mother-in-law wants to know if you would like some coffee.’

I said ‘Yes’; the mother said something in Italian to her mother-in-law, who disappeared into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with coffee. During this interchange Sam had stopped sucking and began to cry. The mother stroked his cheek with her fingers and he began sucking once more.

After feeding Sam from the left breast she sat him up and rubbed his back. He burped loudly and began to cry. The mother turned him around and exposed her right breast. Sam cried loudly and waved his arms and legs around. When the mother placed her nipple close to Sam’s open mouth he latched on straightaway. As he sucked on the right breast, Sam looked very sleepy. He continued to suck with his right hand stroking his mother’s right breast. The grandmother said something to the mother and Sam stopped sucking for a moment as if listening before continuing with the feed. After Sam was finished on the right breast the mother sat him up and he burped. She then placed him on her right shoulder, stood up and walked to the change table. She unwrapped Sam from the bottom of his jump suit and exposed his bottom. He began to kick. The mother spoke to him about maybe becoming a football player. She then placed a clean nappy on Sam, dressed him and then, with him over her shoulder, walked over to the bouncinette and placed him in it. The grandmother picked up a blue plastic ring with brightly coloured keys and placed it into Sam’s open hand. He grasped the ring tightly but then dropped it after a few moments and it slid onto the floor. The grandmother placed the keys back into his hand and the sequence was repeated. The mother spoke to her mother-in-law in Italian and Sam looked at his mother and smiled. The mother returned Sam’s smile and stroked his cheek with her fingers.

Memories that relate to particular feeling states, including the experience of being in utero, and of birth itself, are initially perceived and located within the body and held in the body. This is particularly true of infancy, when the importance of the body as a means of registering and holding feelings and emotional responses is naturally predominant. Infants, like Sam, do not have either the language or mental sophistication with which to respond to and order their experience. The body therefore becomes a crucial instrument, the psychosomatic locus for holding of that which cannot otherwise be expressed. In her book ‘Theatres of the Body’, Joyce McDougal, writes

Since babies cannot yet use words with which to think, they respond to emotional pain only psychosomatically. Although mothers think within the code of language (and most mothers talk constantly to their babies), the infant’s earliest psychic structures are built around non-verbal ‘signifiers’ in which the body’s functions and the erogenous zones play a predominant role’(McDougal, 1989, pp. 9–10).

As I observed Sam during feeding I witnessed the full extent to which a young baby utilises all of his body to give expression to the myriad of feelings aroused. In very young babies like Sam excitement and pleasure evoke a whole body response in which not only is the face lit up with smiling pleasure but the arms and legs are waved in excited agitation and the whole body assumes a picture of exuberance. When a hungry baby is offered the breast, the impatience and excitement are fully evident in the level of physical arousal and the memories of the experience can also be held by the infant in the body. It is not uncommon to see a young baby like Sam mouthing the same kind of movements in his sleep as he made whilst feeding at the breast, as if recreating through the body the memory of the experience of the pleasurable feed. In a similar manner, anger, frustration and distress are also powerfully and visibly evident in a whole range of facial expressions and body postures, which leave one in no doubt as to the intensity of feeling experienced. If the feeding is not going well, if the baby is frustrated beyond his capacity to hold such emotion, anxiety and panic can surface in a display of raw, physical distress. Such physical manifestations of feeling in its raw and unprocessed state can also be evident in other physical behaviours.

We are not surprised when a baby who is suddenly separated from its mother for a prolonged period of time or has been subjected to sudden shock reacts with gastric hyperfunctioning or colitis (ibid., p. 10).

These observations attest to the presence of what Joseph Campbell calls primal energies. These are the essence of life, the most elementary of which is the infant feeding on its mother (Campbell, 2002, p. xv). If the psychological distress or conflict is overwhelming in its intensity and not mediated through the mother’s physical, mental and emotional connection with the infant, it can assume the quality of what Campbell calls, ‘Bio-energies... which, when unbridled, become terrific, horrifying, and destructive’ (ibid., p. xv).

Such distress is only too likely to find expression in a disturbance of a physiological kind, eating and sleeping disorders being two common examples. Digestive problems such as projectile vomiting and gastric reflux can also be manifestations of uncontained, unprocessed feeling.

As I observed with Sam and his mother, the mother and baby are not independent from each other but are integral components of a dynamic structure. Even if the mother is absent or inattentive and, due to her own difficulties, unable to meet the needs of her baby, the mother and infant do not stand in isolation but remain part of this complex dyad.

Because the first phase of child development is dominated by the instinct of self-preservation and the drive to self-development, the accent is on nutritive symbolism, for nourishment is not only the concrete substance from which the body is built but at the same time signifies life, the joy of life and the intensification of life. The mother’s milk is far more than concrete nourishment. It is the symbol of a friendly world.

In the extract above, Sam is not a passive partner but is quite active in the way he engages his mother’s interest. Sam brings something out of his mother to meet his needs. There also appears to be an expectation from Sam that his need to be fed, cleaned and have connection with his mother will be met. This attachment between mother and infant is very important in the survival and development of the human infant.

According to John Bowlby attachment originates in inherited species attachment behaviour. By sucking and clinging, crying and smiling, vocalizing and following, the infant brings the caregiver close. Throughout past ages of evolution, proximity was necessary for sheer physical survival. The baby is born with behaviour that will ensure proximity of a caregiver (Bowlby, 1969, Vol. 1). It was interesting to witness how Sam engaged his mother and kept her close.

All infants are genetically predisposed to seek proximity but the amount and kind they need depend on their experiences and on the situation in which they find themselves. The degree of proximity required by a particular child is his or her set goal. It operates like a thermostat

When heat falls below the temperature at which the thermostat is set, the furnace turns on. Infants have different set goals depending on the experience each has had with his or her particular caregiver. An infant whose mother has been absent, aloof, or unresponsive is likely to need more proximity than one whose mother has been accessible and responsive. Infants who are tired or ill may require more proximity.

When heat falls below the temperature at which the thermostat is set, the furnace turns on. Infants have different set goals depending on the experience each has had with his or her particular caregiver. An infant whose mother has been absent, aloof, or unresponsive is likely to need closer and more frequent proximity than one whose mother has been accessible and responsive. The same may be true of infants who are tired or ill. When as a 10-month-old, Sam was ill he was very clingy and would cry if his mother made an attempt to get up or move away from the settee in which she was sitting holding him. This was quite unusual because Sam would normally sit on the floor contentedly playing with his toys, with only occasional glances towards his mother. On this occasion he was distressed and rather flushed. He would not be comforted by his grandmother but instead clung tightly to his mother. Infants’ ‘set goals’ for attachment are quite diverse in intensity and character. Some infants will seek to be near their mother primarily when she gets up or moves away. The baby may crawl after her or call to her.

Since Bowlby first postulated his theory of attachment, Ainsworth and Sroufe have emphasised a second set goal that must be balanced with proximity seeking, that is, the urge of infants to explore their surroundings. They have added an affective or emotional dimension to Bowlby’s theory, suggesting that the appropriate set goal is not just physical proximity but also a feeling of security (Sroufe, 1977, pp. 731–746). The strong attachment that Sam and his mother feel for each other has generated in Sam the security he requires to mobilise a healthy curiosity about himself and his world.

The development of language

In this paper I have suggested that there is a link between the capacity to symbolise and the ability to use language in a truly communicative sense. As a consequence, the development of language is also about the development of consciousness and the construction of a secure ego, so that there is integrity between our inner world and the language we use.

There is something in us to which our words are connected when we are able to mean what we say. The integrity with which we are able to entertain our emotions sets a limit to the sincerity with which we can express them either by speech or action. This extends to the whole range of our experiences and communications, from the passionate statement to the casual remark, ‘from the embrace to the handshake, from awe at thunder to the irritation of a dripping tap’(Meltzer, 1986, p. 80). There is, therefore, an intimate link between our internal integrity and our capacity to communicate.

Donald Meltzer in his book, ‘Extended studies in Metapsychology’ writes

Some cannot mean what they say; others cannot say what they mean; in some the meaning—it is so impoverished that it is indistinguishable from non-sense; in yet others it is so shallow as to be useless...

The critics of psycho-analysis today often cite as grounds for their disparagement that the ‘talking cure’ is so distant from the body and its central place in human intimacy that the whole method can be dismissed as artificial.... If we are seeking to rectify the impact of experiences of the pre-verbal period of development how can we do this with a method that relies on language? (ibid., p. 80)

The question may be partially solved by asking the question, ‘Are these experiences pre-verbal or are they essentially unverbalisable?’

In psychoanalysis the relationship between language and thought revolves around the question as to whether language determines thought or serves merely as a tool allowing meanings to be signified and expressed. Some would argue that language is a window into the processes of thought, a reflection of an internal reality. In this context, language not only becomes a window into our inner world, but becomes the construct by which I am perceived by myself as an operative other. Language can also be seen as the interface between the individual and society. Hence, the questions concerning the process by which children learn and use language, to understand and be understood, become questions about both social and psychological events.

People do not develop language through mere imitation, nor is language acquired as an innate inheritance. Rather, it develops in concert with experience and expression of emotions which seem to be an inherent part of being human. Primary emotions such as joy, curiosity, fear, anger, sadness and disgust appear to be accompanied by a universal recognition and expression of facial and kinaesthetic symbols. However, the relationship between an emotion and how it impacts on the individual is not a static given but is part of a transformation that has structures which can be traced in historical processes. These structures are the means by which emotion takes on personal meaning. From this point of view, any particular emotional expression has both a universal and personal component, and language is the vehicle and evidence of that process.

According to Polly Young Eisendrath the development of language is archetypal. ‘Archetype’ means ‘primary imprint’ and indicates a universal pre-disposition to construct an image, usually in an emotionally aroused state’ (Young-Eisendrath & Hall, 1991, p. 2). In this context the development of language can be seen as the prerequisite for symbolic thinking.

The period in which image-thinking predominates is developmentally prior to the mastery of syntax in language. Organised images that are the core features of emotionally aroused states are assumed by Jung and Jungians to be more motivating, more powerful, than any attempt to render them in language. Because they are pre-verbal in their first occurrence, and because they are infused with emotion, archetypal images are powerfully motivating and continue to be organisers of psychological experiences (especially in relationships with others) throughout life (ibid., p. 2).

From birth infants are prepared for language. Infants begin life with perceptual systems that are uniquely suited for language learning. They are able to discriminate some important speech sounds virtually from birth. In contrast to the very early appearances of speech-perception abilities, the human infant’s ability to reproduce sounds is very poor. At this stage in the physical development of a young baby, the vocal tract structure is not well suited for speech but is perfectly suited for sucking and drinking without gagging or choking (ibid., p. 2).

From birth to 6 weeks the infant’s vocalisations are mostly reflexive. The baby cries, fusses, spits, sneezes and coughs. From 6 weeks to about 4 months the baby begins to combine these vocalisations with the speech like sounds of cooing and gurgling. These sounds resemble consonant–vowel syllables and are usually directed towards the mother. By 4 months the shape and structure of the baby’s vocal track have matured and the baby begins to produce a variety of speech-like sounds.

At this stage in the observation Sam appeared to practise one or two types of sound at any one time, for example, he spent 4 weeks producing raspberry sounds and then, according to his mother, 2 days of high-pitched squealing, usually making these sounds whilst looking at people or an interesting object. This vocal play appeared to serve two functions. Firstly, it obviously attracted attention and played a role in communication between Sam and other people (his parents, grandparents and others who visited); secondly, it enabled Sam to learn what he could do with his voice. This type of play is significant in developing and understanding the range and control of sounds as a precursor to language and other verbalisations.

By the sixth month, infants can voluntarily engage and control some consonant sounds and they engage in a characteristic of baby talk called reduplicate babble. This usually consists of a consonant and a vowel e.g., da da da da or ma ma ma ma. It is probably not all that coincidental that the words that children use for mother and father in any language sound like this babble—virtually all infants, regardless of the language spoken in their home, say things like this. Almost as soon as infants have achieved control of simple consonant and vowel sounds, they stop making them and begin to express jargon. This involves the use of syllables, with far less repetition and reduplicating babbling, and with a surprising similarity to the intonations of speech patterns of adult speech. It sounds very much like normal adult speech but is unintelligible. It is as if the broad characteristics of the sounds of language, the new-found skills including many of the vowels, consonants and intonation patterns, are being practised.

During the first year of life other prerequisites to language learning become established. Babies begin to imitate adult actions. Non-verbal communication occurs in a variety of settings: play, feeding, dressing, bathing and bedtime. Baby and parents begin to understand one another’s intentions, motivations and behaviors.

When Sam was 13 months of age he wanted his bear which sat on top of his dresser. He initially tried to reach it himself and, after struggling for some moments to reach the bear, realised that he was too short. He then toddled over to mother and pulled her toward the dresser while making short whining sounds and glancing back between his mother and the bear. In this way Sam used vocalisation alongside of non-verbal cues to communicate to his mother his desire for her to retrieve the bear for him.

This interpersonal understanding is a necessary step towards learning the meaning of words. It is much like visiting a foreign country and figuring out the names of things. The most common way is to notice that someone is talking about bread or cheese, for example, and then associate words you hear with appropriate things. This requires that you know what a person is talking about before you understand language. Similarly, children ‘learn their language by first determining, independent of language, the meaning which a speaker intends to convey to them, and by then working out the relationship between the meaning and the language’ (Ben-Zeeve 1977, pp. 1009–1018). More simply, the infant uses meaning as a clue to language rather than language as a clue to meaning.

It was interesting observing Sam’s developing attempts at verbalisation. Within the first few days of his birth, Sam would turn his eyes and head in the general direction of a sound. By 4 months of age, he could reach out and touch a musical object in the dark. On one observation when Sam was 5-months-old, his grandmother and his mother had a quarrel and Sam began to cry. Sam was obviously able to pick up the tension in the atmosphere and in the voices. Bearing in mind that often during my observation the household was quite noisy, this indicated a quite sophisticated interpretation of the meaning behind the tonal variation.

In an observation at 6 months of age, Sam was lying in his crib and waving his arms, his eyes fixed on his bear at his side, babbling as if trying to communicate with the bear. In subsequent observations he would babble and smile at any adults present but if other children were present his eyes would fix on them and he would babble and squeal with delight.

This bear became a significant toy for Sam. The mother had purchased the bear before he was born and had placed it in his crib immediately after birth. The bear was always placed next to Sam in his crib and as he developed it became a focus of attention. As Sam moved into his second year, the bear became a necessity during sleep times and occasionally during play he would pick up the bear, hold it closely and drop it before continuing with his play. He would often ‘talk’ to the bear and the mother, father and grandmother would encourage this behaviour with smiles and words of encouragement.

As we can see from these observations of Sam’s efforts to communicate, he initially makes no distinction between himself and his mother. The intra-utero relationship continues after birth and Sam is content to feed and be fed, to have his needs and his unprocessed feelings reflected and interpreted by his mother. As he begins to mature and develop, he is more able to distinguish himself from the world of his mother’s body. In 1967, Winnicott, in his essay ‘The Mirror Role of Mother and Family in Child Development’, suggested that the mother objectively provides emotional resources for the infant to create and develop an inner world. In this account the mother functions as a mirror reflecting back to the infant its own experiences and gestures. Winnicott goes on to argue that the significant feature of this mirroring is that it provides the infant with a shared experience of human passion, a shared sense of mutual understanding and a shared sense of self (Winnicott, 1996, p. 112).

In the observation of the interaction between the mother and Sam, both appeared to be very relaxed; according to the mother, Sam was a very easy-going baby and (she and Sam) had managed to work things out between them. This accords with Winnicott’s perception. Sam and his mother were in the process of developing a shared mutual understanding and a shared feeling of love between them. This shared sense of connection between mother and child is essential for the creation of a rich, internal imaginative and feelings world, but it is also important for the development of language. By language I infer not only the words that will be uttered but also the integrity between the words uttered and the feeling and meaning behind the words. This shared connection between mother and child provides a fertile base for this integrity to flourish.

The infant is initially caught between an imaginative illusory world and the external physical reality. In the imaginary world, the infant is omnipotent and the centre of the universe. The question we might ask is how does the child make the transition from a world of illusory objects to the world of outer reality? He does so through forging a connection with the outside world by discovering the characteristics of other persons. The child is emotionally searching for certain boundaries between inner and outer experiences (Winnicott, 1996, pp. 111–118).

This orientation towards aspects of outer realities is forged according to Winnicott through ‘transitional objects’. The establishment of a transitional object, such as a toy or a blanket, is a bridging between the inner world of feeling and the outer world of objects and persons. Winnicott argues that the child creates a perception of an object, but the object would not have been created if it had not already been there. For example, in the case of Sam’s babbling to the bear in his crib, although the bear had been placed in his crib from birth, it would not have become significant for Sam unless that significance had come from Sam himself. This is demonstrative of the beginning of Sam’s capacity to symbolise.

Winnicott writes

It is true that the piece of blanket (or whatever it is) is symbolical of some part-object, such as the breast. Nevertheless, the point of it is not its symbolic value so much as its actuality. Its not being the breast (or the mother), although real, is as important as that it stands for the breast (or mother) (Ibid., p. 6).

The symbolic object is symbolic of a transitional space. The transitional space is a paradoxical realm in which the infant feels it creates and controls the object yet also perceives that the object belongs to the world of other people. The capacity that Sam revealed, to use and play with transitional objects, is fundamental to his construction of symbols.

Winnicott writes

When symbolism is employed the infant is already clearly distinguishing between fantasy and fact, between inner objects and external objects, between primary creativity and perception. But the term transitional object, according to my suggestion, gives room for the process of becoming able to accept difference and similarity. I think there is use for a term for the root of symbolism in time, a term that describes the infant’s journey from the purely subjective to objectivity; and it seems to me that this transitional object (piece of blanket, etc.) is what we see of this journey of progress towards experiencing (ibid., p. 6).

In this context the development of language, from cooing and babbling to words spoken to sentence construction can be seen as transitional phenomena, that is, it links fantasy and reality, self and other. From this perspective, culture and language are not entities that human beings encounter. Rather, they are creatively made and remade through transitional realms of learning, traditions, ideas and inventions. It is within the space between subjects that the bridging of inner and outer world, between culture and social life arises. Language becomes symbolic of the integrity of this bridging between inner and outer realities. Our ability to say what we mean and mean what we say is not only a mirror of our inner world, but also becomes a creative force in the bridging.

In this paper I have suggested that the mother–child dyad is the foundation for integrity between the psychic self and the physical self, and the capacity of these to relate to the external environment. I have also argued that the development of language and symbol are creative agents in the development of consciousness in the young infant, and that the emergence of language and symbol are an expression of the opening of a potential space which allows differentiation from the mother and facilitates the infant’s ability to distinguish fantasy from fact and self from other.

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© Blanton-Peale Institute 2006