What Were Helen Keller’s First Words?

On April 5, 1887, less than a month after her arrival in Tuscumbia, Anne sought to resolve the confusion her pupil was having between the nouns “mug” and “milk,” which Helen confused with the verb “drink.”

Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and put Helen’s hand under the spout. As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand the word “w-a-t-e-r” first slowly, then rapidly. Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen’s mind. She knew that “water” meant the wonderful cool substance flowing over her hand.

Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.

Helen quickly proceeded to master the alphabet, both manual and in raised print for blind readers, and gained facility in reading and writing. In Helen’s handwriting, many round letters look square, but you can easily read everything.

In 1890, when she was just 10, she expressed a desire to learn to speak; Anne took Helen to see Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston. Fuller gave Helen 11 lessons, after which Anne taught Helen.

Throughout her life, however, Helen remained dissatisfied with her spoken voice, which was hard to understand.

Helen’s extraordinary abilities and her teacher’s unique skills were noticed by Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain, two giants of American culture. Twain declared, “The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller.”

The closeness of Helen and Anne’s relationship led to accusations that Helen’s ideas were not her own. Famously, at the age of 11, Helen was accused of plagiarism. Both Bell and Twain, who were friends and supporters of Helen and Anne, flew to the defense of both pupil and teacher and mocked their detractors. Read a¬†letter from Mark Twain to Helen¬†lamenting “that ‘plagiarism’ farce.”