Marks in Books #6: A Mother’s Transcription of Baby Talk in The Imperial Alphabet


The front wrapper of The Imperial Alphabet (Cotsen 9108). It looks as if the wrong title label was slapped on.

This week I found a most unusual picture book in the nineteenth-century English pamphlets: The Imperial Alphabet  (London: E. Marshall, not after 1831), which sounds as if it must be full of pictures of soldiers and flags and horses.  What the pamphlet offered its little readers was pretty standard fare: an alphabet of lower-case Roman letters, a rhyming alphabet that begins “A was an Apple.  Pray, have you not seen/  One that was striped with red and with green?” plus the “Numerical pastime,” aka the nursery rhyme “One two,/ Buckle my shoe.”

What makes The Imperial Alphabet  a remarkable survival is that it was used by a mother to record her little boy’s early attempts to talk.   She didn’t use the blank pages as a diary, as is so often the case.  Instead she seems to have showed him the pictures, asked him “What is this?” and recorded the actual pronunciation of his words and translation, when appropriate, on the plates of the book.  The note at the head of the title page “Watling 17th Oct. 1831” suggests when and where the exercise took place, but there are Watling Streets in London, Dublin, and St. Albans, so we can’t be sure where mother and son were living at the time.


Over the frontispiece is written, “My darling child John Archibald’s way of explaining all the pictures,” so she must have been Mrs. Archibald.  The frontispiece is a version of an image of instruction that appeared in countless editions of William Lily’s Latin grammar.  Below the tree of knowledge are little John’s gurglings, “Pitty Tee.  Baw!  Too Baw!”  If his mother hadn’t indicated that “baw” was “boy,” I would have guessed John was referring to the apples on the ground, which look remarkably like balls decorated with letters of the alphabet.   The title page vignette of the bird prompted, “Gake Doodle Doo” or “Great Doodle Doo” which in John-speak meant “Bird.”   It’s a lark, not a rooster, and the cut dates back to the 1750s, where it appeared in the Lilliputian Magazine, the first children’s periodical published by John Newbery.


All the subjects on the plate for Apple to Fish are familiar objects, but some of John’s words for them need interpretation.    “Baa fy” for “butterfly” is easy, but  “daidy” in “Daidy. Apply” is obscure, as is “Bill doo” over “Dog.”  In 1831, “moo-cow milk” suggests that the phrase was well-established as baby talk.  John couldn’t manage the “sh” at the end of “Fish,”  but he identified “Egg” as something he father liked to eat: “Papa Yoig.”


The second plate is a mixture of animals and things and John identified them all. “Goke” for “goat,” “Baa Baa Feep” for “lamb,” and  “moc” for “mouse.”   Could “Poo yay” is an attempt to say the name of a pet rabbit instead of “hare.”  It surely isn’t “Puss,” which was a synonym for a rabbit or hare.  John knew  that the “Ink-Stand” was off limits to him: “Ing no tuss.”  “Kite” seems to have elicited an excited response from him: “Mimi kiye,” which meant “Mikey’s kite.”  Mikey could have been a sibling or a neighbor.


The words on the plate for the letters T through Z seem to have given John some trouble.  For example, he couldn’t pronounce the final “p” in “Top.”   The picture of a traditional head yoke seems to have thrown him for a loop.  The two bows, which go over the heads of the team of oxen, looked like whips (“Fipp”) to him.   Mama was able to construe “Stupid (or striped) Donkey” from “Tupie Nia” but she didn’t seem to know any more than I do what “Tu pa” meant with reference to the picture of the urn.    “Watch” and “Xerxes” were two other things John readily associated with his father.


The final engraved plate had other family associations for John.  “Queen” was of course his mama, while “Nag” had to be her horse (I wonder if he was prompted in some way).   A favorite dish “appa pa” appeared above “Robin,” which he identified as “Datey Ba.”  Only his mother could have known he was trying to say “Jane’s bird.”  Song birds were often kept as pets by girls, so Jane may have been another sibling.vignettepage23a

John knew exactly what the final illustration was: the chicken standing by the edge of the pond was “Doodle doo waa waa.”  Who knew babies in the early nineteenth-century had the same problem saying “water” as babies do now?  (“Moo-cow” is in the Oxford English Dictionary, but not this sense of “waa waa.”)  The ducks he passed over.

Did Mrs. Archibald have any reason to have done this besides being amazed by anything her little man did?  If she took the education of her children seriously, then she probably was familiar with the influential treatise Practical Education (1798) by Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard.  The father-daughter collaborators did indeed have plenty of hands-on experience with children: Richard fathered upon four wives twenty-two children, thirteen of whom survived; Maria, the eldest of his daughters, was intimately involved in bringing up her many half-sisters and brothers.

The Edgeworths recommended that mothers imitate Richard’s first wife Honora, who kept a notebook of “all the trifling things which mark the progress of the mind in childhood” because education as an “experimental science” would progress through observation rather than theory.   The Imperial Alphabet was a kind of register of John’s progress just like Honora Edgeworth’s notebooks.  Maybe Mrs. Archibald used others of John’s books the same way, but it is more likely that the normal demands of motherhood were too great to allow her to continue.  After all, how many baby books are completely filled in, even for the first arrival to the family?  That this copy of The Imperial Alphabet was not discarded as in substandard condition is a tribute to the acuity of the bookseller who offered it to Mr. Cotsen.  They both realized that all the writing inside it was what made it special.

The entire book has been digitized and can be seen here: