Baby talk: Wikis


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Baby talk, also referred to as caretaker speech, infant-directed talk (IDT) or child-directed speech (CDS)[1][2][3][4] and informally as "motherese", "parentese", or "mommy talk"), is a nonstandard form of speech used by adults in talking to toddlers and infants. It is usually delivered with a "cooing" pattern of intonation different from that of normal adult speech: high in pitch, with many glissando variations that are more pronounced than those of normal speech. Baby talk is also characterized by the shortening and simplifying of words. Baby talk is also used by people when talking to their pets, and between adults as a form of affection, intimacy, bullying or condescension.



  • Baby talk is a long-established and universally understood traditional term.[citation needed]
  • Motherese and parentese are more precise terms than baby talk, and perhaps more amenable to computer searches, but are not the terms of choice among child development professionals (and by critics of gender stereotyping with respect to the term motherese) because all caregivers, not only parents, use distinct speech patterns and vocabulary when talking to young children. Motherese can also refer to English spoken in a higher, gentler manner, which is otherwise correct English, as opposed to the non-standard, shortened word forms.
  • Child-directed speech or CDS is the term preferred by researchers, psychologists and child development professionals.[5]
  • Caregiver language is also sometimes used.

Possible purposes

Use with infants

Baby talk is more effective than regular speech in getting an infant's attention. Studies have shown that infants actually prefer to listen to this type of speech.[6] Some researchers, including Rima Shore (1997), believe that baby talk is an important part of the emotional bonding process.Other researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Wisconsin confirm that using basic “baby talk” helps babies pick up words faster than usual.[7] Infants actually pay more attention when parents use infant-directed language, which is a more slower,repetitive tone used in a regular conversations.

Colwyn Trevarthen studied babies and their mothers. He observed the communication and subtle movements between the babies and mothers. He has links to music therapy with other theorists.[8]

Aid to cognitive development

Shore and other researchers believe that baby talk contributes to mental development, as it helps teach the child the basic function and structure of language. Studies have found that responding to an infant's babble with meaningless babble aids the infant's development; while the babble has no logical meaning, the verbal interaction demonstrates to the child the bidirectional nature of speech, and the importance of verbal feedback. Some experts advise that parents should not talk to infants and young children solely in baby talk, but should integrate some normal adult speech as well. The high-pitched sound of motherese gives it special acoustic qualities which may appeal to the infant (Goodluck 1991). Motherese may aid a child in the acquisition and/or comprehension of language-particular rules which are otherwise unpredictable, when utilizing principles of universal grammar (Goodluck 1991). Some feel that parents should refer to the child and others by their names only (no pronouns, e.g., he, I, or you), to avoid confusing infants who have yet to form an identity independent from their parents.

Questions regarding universality

Some researchers have pointed out that baby talk is not universal among the world's cultures, and argue that its role in "helping children learn grammar" has been overestimated. In some societies (such as certain Samoan tribes; see first reference) adults do not speak to their children until the children reach a certain age. In other societies, it is more common to speak to children as one would to an adult, but with simplifications in grammar and vocabulary. In order to relate to the child during baby talk, a parent may deliberately slur or fabricate some words, and may pepper the speech with nonverbal utterances. A parent might refer only to objects and events in the immediate vicinity, and will often repeat the child's utterances back to them. Since children employ a wide variety of phonological and morphological simplifications (usually distance assimilation or reduplication) in learning speech, such interaction results in the "classic" baby-words like na-na for grandmother or din-din for dinner, where the child seizes on a stressed syllable of the input, and simply repeats it to form a word.

In any case, the normal child will eventually acquire the local language without difficulty, regardless of the degree of exposure to baby talk. However, the use of motherese could have an important role in affecting the rate and quality of language acquisition.

Use with non-infants

The use of baby talk is not limited to interactions between adults and infants, as it may be used among adults, or by adults to animals. In these instances, the outward style of the language may be that of baby talk, but is not considered actual parentese, as it serves a different linguistic function (see pragmatics).

Patronizing/derogatory baby talk

Baby talk may be used by one noninfant to another as a form of verbal abuse, in which the talk is intended to infantilize the victim. This can occur during bullying, when the bully uses baby talk to assert that the victim is weak, cowardly, overemotional, or otherwise submissive.

Flirtatious baby talk

Baby talk may be used as a form of flirtation between sex partners. In this instance, the baby talk may be an expression of tender intimacy, and may form part of affectionate sexual roleplaying in which one partner speaks and behaves childishly, while the other acts motherly or fatherly, responding in parentese. One or both partners might perform the child role.

Baby talk with pets

Many people use falsetto, glissando and repetitive speech similar to baby talk when addressing their pets. Such talk is not commonly used by professionals who train working animals, but is very common among owners of companion pets. This style of speech is different from baby talk, despite intonal similarities, especially if the speaker uses rapid rhythms and forced breathiness which may mimic the animal's utterances. Pets often learn to respond well to the emotional states and specific commands of their owners who use baby talk, especially if the owner's intonations are very distinct from ambient noise. For example, a dog may recognize baby talk as his owner's invitation to play (as is a dog's natural "play bow"); a cat may learn to come when addressed with the high-pitched utterance, "Heeeeere kitty- kitty-kitty-kitty- kitty- kitty!"


As noted above, baby talk often involves shortening and simplifying words, with the possible addition of slurred words and nonverbal utterances, and can invoke a vocabulary of its own. Some utterances are invented by parents within a particular family unit, or passed down from parent to parent over generations, while others are quite widely known.

A fair number of baby talk and nursery words refer to bodily functions or private parts, partly because the words are relatively easy to pronounce. Moreover, such words reduce adults' discomfort with the subject matter, and make it possible for children to discuss such things without breaking adult taboos.

Some examples of widely-used baby talk words and phrases in English, many of which are not found within standard dictionaries, include:

  • baba (blanket, bottle or baby)
  • beddy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
  • binkie (pacifier (dummy) or blanket)
  • blankie (blanket)
  • boo-boo (wound or bruise)
  • bubby (brother)
  • bubba (brother)
  • dada (dad, daddy)
  • didee (diaper)
  • din-din (dinner)
  • doedoes (In South African English, the equivalent of beddy-bye)
  • googoogaga
  • num nums (food/dinner)
  • ickle (little (chiefly British))
  • icky (disgusting)
  • jammies (pajamas)
  • nana (grandmother)
  • oopsie-daisy (accident)
  • owie (wound or bruise)
  • passie or paci (pacifier (dummy))
  • pee-pee (urinate or penis)
  • pewie (smelling bad)
  • poo-poo or doo-doo (defecation)
  • potty (toilet)
  • sissy (sister)
  • sleepy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
  • stinky (defecation)
  • tummy (stomach)
  • wawa (water)
  • wee-wee (urination or penis)
  • widdle (urine (chiefly British))
  • widdle (little (chiefly American))
  • wuv (love)
  • yucky (disgusting)
  • yum-yum (meal time)
  • mama (mother)
  • uppie (wanting to be picked up)

Moreover, many words can be derived into baby talk following certain rules of transformation, in English adding a terminal /i/ sound is a common way to form a diminutive which is used as part of baby talk, examples include:

  • horsey (from horse)
  • kitty (from cat or kitten)
  • potty (originally from pot now equivalent to modern toilet)
  • doggy (from dog)

("Puppy" is often erroneously thought to be a diminutive of pup made this way, but it is in fact the other way around: pup is a shortening of puppy, which comes from French popi or poupée.)

Other transformations mimic the way infants mistake certain consonants which in English can include turning /l/ into /w/ as in wuv from love or widdo from little or in pronouncing /v/ as /b/ and /ð/ or /t/ as /d/.

Still other transformations, but not in all languages, include elongated vowels, such as kitty and kiiiitty, meaning the same thing. While this is understood by English speaking toddlers, it is not applicable with Dutch toddlers as they learn that elongated vowels reference different words.[9]

Examples in literature

  • The novelist Booth Tarkington, in Seventeen (1917), gives this example of baby talk, in this case, from a pet owner speaking to her dog:
...pressing her cheek to Flopit's, she changed her tone. "Izzum's ickle heart a-beatin' so floppity! Um's own mumsy make ums all right, um's p'eshus Flopit!"
  • George Orwell, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), gives us another example addressed to a pet dog:
"A Peke, the ickle angel pet, wiv his gweat big soulful eyes and his ickle black nosie — oh so ducky-duck!"
  • Punch, April 23, 1919, in a humorous piece purporting to pose examination questions on "the interesting language known as Bablingo", quizzes the examinee on items such as "Wasums and didums, then? Was it a ickle birdie, then?" "Did he woz-a-woz, then; a Mum's own woz-man?" and "Did she try to hit her ickle bruzzer on his nosie-posie wiz a mug? Did she want to break him up into bitsy-witsies?"
  • In her famous New Yorker review of A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner (1928) Dorothy Parker, writing under the book reviewer pen name Constant Reader, purposefully mimics baby talk when dismissing the book's syrupy prose style: "It is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up."

See also


  1. ^ Matychuk, Paul (24 April 2004). "The role of child-directed speech in language acquisition: a case study". Language Sciences (27). 
  2. ^ "Gender Differences in Child-Directed Speech". 
  3. ^ Herrera, E. and Reissland, N. and Shepherd, J. (2004). "Maternal touch and maternal child-directed speech : effects of depressed mood in the postnatal period". Journal of affective disorders (81). 
  4. ^ Ghada Khattab. "Does child-directed speech really facilitate the emergence of phonological structure? The case of gemination in Arabic CDS". 
  5. ^ Lawrence Balter, Robert B. McCall. Parenthood in America: A-M. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576072134. "developmental psychologists refer to this kind of language to young children as child-directed speech" 
  6. ^ Kathy L. Reschke, Ph.D.(2002), Ohio State University, "Baby Talk"
  7. ^ Baby Talk May Help Infants Learn Faster
  8. ^ revised from Lindon, J (2005) Understanding Child Development - Linking Theory and Practice, Hodder Arnold, London. Added by S M Burnett, Scotland
  9. ^ "Native Language Governs Toddlers’ Speech Sounds". 2007-10-23. Retrieved 2007-11-02. 
  • Ochs, Elinor and Bambi Schieffelin. (1984). "Language acquisition and socialization: Three developmental stories." Culture Theory Eds. R. Shweder and R. LeVine. 276-320.
  • Shore, Rima. (1997). Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development. New York: Families and Work Institute.
  • Evans, Chris ([1196-200]) Use on British Channel 4 program TFI Friday. e.g. the ickle drum kit.

External links

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