, also referred to as caretaker speech
, infant-directed speech
) or child-directed speech
) and informally as "motherese
", "mommy talk
", or "daddy 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
In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody...
different from that of normal adult speech: high in pitch
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...
, with many glissando
In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, to glide. In some contexts it is distinguished from the continuous portamento...
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 similar to what is used by people when talking to their pets (pet-directed speech), and between adults as a form of affection, intimacy, bullying or condescension.
- The first documented use of the word baby-talk, according to the Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...
, was in 1836.
- 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
Developmental psychology, also known as human development, is the scientific study of systematic psychological changes, emotional changes, and perception changes that occur in human beings over the course of their life span. Originally concerned with infants and children, the field has expanded to...
professionals (and by critics of gender stereotyping
Gender roles refer to the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture, which differ widely between cultures and over time...
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.
- Caregiver language is also sometimes used.
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.
Some researchers, including Rima Shore (1997), believe that baby talk is an important part of the emotional bonding process between the parents and their child that help the infants learn the language. 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. Infants actually pay more attention when parents use infant-directed language, which has a slower and more repetitive tone than used in regular conversation.
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.
Aid to cognitive development
Shore and other researchers believe that baby talk contributes to mental development
Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience and psychology focusing on a child's development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning, and other aspects of brain development and cognitive psychology compared to an adult's point of...
, 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
Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. This language might be vocal as with...
; 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). It has been also suggested that motherese is crucial for children to acquire the ability to ask questions. Some feel that parents should refer to the child and others by their names only (no pronouns, e.g., he
, or you
), to avoid confusing infants who have yet to form an identity independent from their parents.
Questions regarding universality
Researchers Bryant and Barrett (2007) have suggested (as have others before them, e.g., Fernald
Anne Fernald is an American psychologist, the Josephine Knotts Knowles Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University, and has been described as "the leading researcher in infant-directed speech"....
, 1992 ) that baby talk exists universally across all cultures and is a species-specific adaptation. Other researchers contend that it is not universal among the world's cultures, and argue that its role in helping children learn grammar has been overestimated. As evidence they point out that in some societies (such as certain Samoa
Samoa , officially the Independent State of Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa is a country encompassing the western part of the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. It became independent from New Zealand in 1962. The two main islands of Samoa are Upolu and one of the biggest islands in...
n tribes; see Shore 1997), adults do not speak to their children at all until the children reach a certain age. Furthermore, even where baby-talk is used, it is full of complicated grammatical constructs, and mispronounced or non-existent words. Other evidence suggests that baby talk is not a universal phenomenon. Schieffelin & Ochs (1983), for example, describe the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea who do not typically employ infant-directed speech. Language acquisition in Kaluli children was not found to be significantly impaired. In other societies, it is more common to speak to children as one would to an adult, but with simplifications in grammar and vocabulary, with the belief that it will help them learn words as they are known in the standard form.
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
Assimilation is a common phonological process by which the sound of the ending of one word blends into the sound of the beginning of the following word. This occurs when the parts of the mouth and vocal cords start to form the beginning sounds of the next word before the last sound has been...
Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word is repeated exactly or with a slight change....
) in learning speech, such interaction results in the "classic" baby-words like na-na
, or din-din
, where the child seizes on a stressed syllable
A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus with optional initial and final margins .Syllables are often considered the phonological "building...
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 people 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
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. Pragmatics encompasses speech act theory, conversational implicature, talk in interaction and other approaches to language behavior in philosophy, sociology, and linguistics. It studies how the...
Patronizing/derogatory baby talk
Baby talk and imitations of it may be used by one noninfant to another as a form of verbal abuse
Verbal abuse is best described as a negative defining statement told to you or about you; or by withholding any response thus defining the target as non-existant...
, 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
Flirting is a playful, romantic, or sexual overture by one person to another subtly indicating an interest in a deeper relationship with the other person, and can involve verbal communication as well as body language...
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. Terms of endearment, such as poppet
may be used for the same purpose.
Baby talk with pets
Many people use falsetto
Falsetto is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds, in whole or in part...
In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, to glide. In some contexts it is distinguished from the continuous portamento...
and repetitive speech similar to baby talk when addressing their pet
A pet is a household animal kept for companionship and a person's enjoyment, as opposed to wild animals or to livestock, laboratory animals, working animals or sport animals, which are kept for economic or productive reasons. The most popular pets are noted for their loyal or playful...
s. Such talk is not commonly used by professionals who train working animals such as police dog
A police dog, often referred to as a "K-9 dog" in some areas , is a dog that is trained specifically to assist police and other law-enforcement personnel in their work...
s and guard dog
A guard dog, an attack dog or watch dog is a dog used to guard against, and watch for, unwanted or unexpected people or animals. The dog is discriminating so that it does not annoy or attack familiar people.-Barking:...
s, 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"
Dog communication refers to body movements and sounds dogs use to send signals to other dogs, and other animals . Dog communication comes in a variety of forms, and is part of the foundation of dog social behavior. Dogs use certain movements of their bodies and body parts and different...
); a cat may learn to come when addressed with the high-pitched utterance, "Heeeeere kitty- kitty-kitty-kitty- kitty- kitty!"
People speaking to foreigners may simplify their language in order to address listeners not skilled in the speaker's language. Some people use sign language
A sign language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker's...
to communicate with others, especially if they have a hearing problem, although this is not always understood by people, so they may use a baby talk-like language to communicate, skipping out small words and possibly using demonstratives instead of pronouns, for example Do not cross the road
becoming No cross road
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 are passed down from parent to parent over generations, while others are quite widely known and used within most families, such as wawa
for water, num-num
for a meal, ba-ba
for bottle, or beddy-bye
for bedtime, and are considered standard
words, possibly differing in meaning from place to place.
Baby talk, language regardless, usually consists of a muddle of words, including names for family members, names for animals, eating and meals, bodily functions and genitals, sleeping, pain, possibly including important objects such as diaper, blanket, pacifier, bottle, etc., and may be sprinkled with nonverbal utterances, such as goo goo ga ga
. The vocabulary of made-up words, such as those listed below, may be quite long with terms for a large number of things, rarely or possibly never using proper language, other times quite short, dominated by real words, only comprised of nouns. Most words invented by parents have a logical meaning, although the nonverbal sounds are usually completely meaningless and just fit the speech together.
A fair number of baby talk and nursery words refer to bodily functions or the genitals, partly because the words are relatively easy to pronounce. Also, if a child is very young, bodily functions such as urination and defecation may be quite exciting for them. Scientific terms may be harder for them to understand and pronounce, so baby talk may be more convenient for a young child. Moreover, such words reduce adults' discomfort with the subject matter, and make it possible for children to discuss such things without breaking adult taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...
s. However, some, such as pee-pee
have been very widely used in reference to bodily functions to the point that they are considered to be standard words, so ability to mention such subjects without adult negativity has recently faded.
Some examples of widely-used baby talk words and phrases in English
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...
, many of which are not found within standard dictionaries but may be classified as nonstandard
- baba (blanket, bath, bottle, brother, baby or an onomatopoeic term for sheep, used as a generic baby-talk term for words starting with the letter b)
- beddy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
- binkie (pacifier)
- blankie (blanket)
- boo-boo (wound, pain or bruise)
- botty (rear end)
- bow-wow (dog)
- brekkie (breakfast)
- bubby or bubba (brother)
- choo-choo (train)
- dada (dad, or rarely dog, diaper, or dummy, British equivalent of pacifier, sometimes used as a generic baby-talk term for words starting with the letter d)
- didee (diaper, chiefly American)
- din-din (dinner)
- doedoes (In South African English
The term South African English is applied to the first-language dialects of English spoken by South Africans, with the L1 English variety spoken by Zimbabweans, Zambians and Namibians, being recognised as offshoots.There is some social and regional variation within South African English...
, the equivalent of beddy-bye)
- doggy or -ie (dog)
- dolly or -ie (doll)
- dum-dum (dummy, British equivalent of pacifier
A pacifier is a rubber, plastic, or silicone nipple given to an infant or other young child to suck upon. In its standard appearance it has a teat, mouth shield, and handle...
- drinky (drink)
- gee-gee (horse)
- goo goo ga ga (nonverbal utterance imitating a baby which has not yet learned to speak)
- huggle or huggie (hug, Huggies
Huggies is the brand name of a disposable diaper marketed by Kimberly-Clark. Huggies were first test marketed in 1968, then introduced to the public in 1978.-Product lines:...
is also a brand of diapers and baby products)
- lickle (little)
- mama (mother or rarely milk)
- moo-moo or moo-cow (cow)
- milkie or -y (milk)
- no-no (taboo, something which is not good)
- night-night (goodnight, bedtime)
- num nums (food/dinner)
- ickle (little; chiefly British)
- icky (disgusting)
- jammies (pyjamas)
- lolly (sweets US candy)
- nana (grandmother)
- oopsie-daisy or whoopsie-daisy (accident)
- owie (wound or bruise)
- passie or paci (pacifier, often used as an abbreviation)
- pee-pee (urination or penis)
- pewie (smelling bad)
- poo-poo or doo-doo (defecation)
- poopie or -y (defecation)
- potty (toilet, especially a chamber pot for a young child)
- poppet (term of endearment for a young child)
- puffer (train)
- quick-quick (haste, hurry, doing something quickly, chiefly British)
- scrummy (tasty)
- sissy (sister or urination)
- sleepy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
- stinky (defecation)
- teensy-weensy (very small, tiny)
- tummy (stomach or abdomen)
- uh-oh, sometimes written as uh-uh or oh-oh (toddler's expression towards anything that is not good or has gone wrong)
- wawa (water)
- wee-wee (urination or penis)
- whoopsie (defecation)
- widdle (urine; chiefly British)
- widdle (little; chiefly American)
- widdo (little)
- wuv (love)
- yucky (disgusting)
- yum-yum (meal time, informally interpreted as an expression of delight towards a pleasant-tasting food)
- uppie or -sie (wanting to be picked up)
- vroom-vroom or brrrm-brrrm (car)
Moreover, many words can be derived into baby talk following certain rules of transformation, in English adding a terminal /i/ sound at the end, usually written and spelled as /ie/, /y/, or /ey/, is a common way to form a diminutive which is often 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 or a chamber pot
A chamber pot is a bowl-shaped container with a handle, and often a lid, kept in the bedroom under a bed or in the cabinet of a nightstand and...
for a young child)
- doggy (from dog)
- milky (from milk, also spelled as milkie)
- drinky (from drink)
- poopy (from poop)
- uppie (from up)
- ducky (from duck)
- pewie (from P. U., an expression of disgust towards something smelling bad)
("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
which means "doll".)
Baby talk phrases and sentences often skip out small words, imitating young children who can make little sense of sentence composition, such as to
, thus resulting in an incomplete sentence, such as I need go potty
or I want blanket
. Sometimes, demonstratives are used instead of pronouns (he
etc), as it may help children learn people's names, for example, Daddy wants Susie to eat her cereal
instead of standard adult-type speech, I want you to eat your cereal
as pronouns are often confusing to young children. Also, labelling is practised, sometimes emphasising a word through repetition within a sentence, such as That's a car, Susie. It's a car.
Some parents substitute a particular word in a sentence with a difficult sound to pronounce with another easier word, such as choo-choo
instead of train
as some children are unable to pronounce the /tr/ sound as infants, although most learn pronunciations and phonics as they increase in age.
All individual words have a logical meaning, although phrases made up of them are often based on random utterances, sprinkled with logical words, so the child can "sift" out the words with meanings and interpret them, as the parent may teach language by labelling, associating the word with the object or action.
Use as informal terms
Some baby talk words and phrases, such as mama
are sometimes used after infancy, just as colloquial or informal terms. However, reduplication is not practised, for example pee-pee
. Also, meanings may slightly change to become more age-universal and specific, for example potty
changing in meaning from any toilet to a container-like one for small children, or yum-yum
changing from mealtime to an informal expression of delight towards a meal, or stinky
changing from defecation (as a countable noun) to an adjective for something smelling bad, such as This cheese is stinky!
. Also, poppet
or similar terms may be used as a term of endearment for a loved one of similar age, such as a romantic partner, and quick-quick
may be used as expressions in school, university and even occupational work scenarios. Nonverbal utterances such as googoogaga
may be used as figuratives for things misinterpreted or not understood. Words such as mama
are words often used for family members past infancy. The word doo-doo
is used as a figurative later in age for something difficult or problematic, such as When the computer's jammed, we're in deep doo-doo.
Most standard baby talk words consist of a single syllable duplicated, such as mama
. These, such as mama
, are often imitations of a baby's first utterances which take the shape of a word. These are made when the child takes a stressed syllable of the main word to "shorten" it and repeats it to form a word-like utterance. Words with similar sounds from stressed syllables, such as mama
. These include:
- bot-bot or ba-ba from bottle
- dum-dum from dummy (British term for a pacifier)
- mama from mother
- dada from daddy
- poo-poo from poop
Words can be made from a diminutive with an /i/ sound at the end, reduplicated, but the first letter of the duplication replaced with a /w/, for example teensy-weensy
. Realistic language examples following this same pattern, known as partial duplications
or modified duplications
which use the first letter as the point of modification. However, these patterns are more common in colloquial language and slang than formal English and rarely use a /w/ for modification.
Many baby talk words for animals involve duplication of the onomatopoeia of the sound they make, including:
- moo-moo (cow)
- neigh-neigh (horse)
- baa-baa, sometimes written as ba-ba (sheep)
Others, which do not relate to animals, include vroom-vroom
(car) and choo-choo
Differences in pronunciation
Other transformations mimic the way infants mistake certain consonants which in English can include turning /l/ into /w/ as in wuv
or in pronouncing /v/ as /b/ and /ð/ or /t/ as /d/ and soft /th/ as /f/ or /s/.
Still other transformations, but not in all languages, include elongated vowels, such as kitty
, (emphasised /i/) 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.
Meanings by region
Some baby talk words have different meanings in different places, although spelt and said the same, such as widdle
which is interpreted as a mistaking of little
in the United States, and is interpreted as urine
in the United Kingdom. Also, this can be supported by parents inventing meanings inside family units, whose language styles may differ from place to place. Some baby talk words are used frequently in the United Kingdom, possibly being considered standard terms, with some rare or even totally unknown in the United States, or vice versa.
Examples in literature
- The novelist Booth Tarkington
Booth Tarkington was an American novelist and dramatist best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams...
, 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
Eric Arthur Blair , better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English author and journalist...
, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published 1936, is a socially critical novel by George Orwell. It is set in 1930s London. The main theme is Gordon Comstock's romantic ambition to defy worship of the money-god and status, and the dismal life that results....
(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 New Yorker review of A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner
The House at Pooh Corner is the second volume of stories about Winnie-the-Pooh, written by A. A. Milne and illustrated by E. H. Shepard. It is notable for the introduction of the character Tigger, who went on to become a prominent figure in the Disney Winnie the Pooh franchise.- Plot :The title...
(1928) Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th century urban foibles....
, 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."
- In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth in the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling, and was published on 21 June 2003 by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom, Scholastic in the United States, and Raincoast in Canada...
" (2003), J. K. Rowling
Joanne "Jo" Rowling, OBE , better known as J. K. Rowling, is the British author of the Harry Potter fantasy series...
gives this example of baby talk, from Bellatrix Lestrange to Harry Potter
Harry Potter is a series of seven fantasy novels written by the British author J. K. Rowling. The books chronicle the adventures of the adolescent wizard Harry Potter and his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, all of whom are students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry...
: "The little baby woke up fwightened and fort what it dweamed was twoo."