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Baby talk, motherese, parentese, or child-directed speech (CDS) is a non-standard form of speech used by adults, particularly mothers, in talking to toddlers and infants. It is usually delivered with a "cooing" pattern of intonation which is different from normal adult speech: high in pitch, and with many glissando-like rises and falls in pitch which are exaggerated by comparison with normal speech. Parents will refer to the child and others by their name only (no he's, I's, or you's) so as not to confuse infants who have yet to form an identity independent from their parents. Often the shortening and simplifying of words, by adults for children, is more commonly called baby talk. Baby talk is also used by pet owners when talking to their pets, and between adults as a form of affectionate intimacy.
- Baby talk is a long-established and universally understood traditional term.
- Motherese is more precise than baby talk, and perhaps more amenable to computer searches, but is disliked by child development professionals (and by critics of gender stereotyping) because all caregivers, not just mothers, use distinct speech patterns and vocabulary when talking to young children. Alternatives such as parentese have not caught on. Motherese often refers specifically to otherwise English spoken in a higher, gentle manner but that is otherwise ordinary correct English, and not to the non-standard, shortened forms of words.
- Child-directed speech or CDS is the term preferred by researchers, psychologists, and child development professionals.
One basic reason for baby talk is that it catches an infant's attention more readily than regular speech does. Some researchers, including Rima Shore (1997) believe that baby talk is an important part of the emotional bonding process.
Shore and other researchers also believe that baby talk contributes to mental development. They say it plays a role in teaching the child the basic function and structure of language. Studies have found that even replying to babble with meaningless babble aids language acquisition, because even though the babble itself conveys no logical meaning, the interaction teaches infants that speech is bidirectional communication. Some experts advise that parents should not talk to infants and young children solely in baby talk, but include some normal adult speech as well. The high pitch of motherese gives it special acoustic properties which may be appealing to the infant (Goodluck 1991). Motherese may also serve to aid a child in the acquisition and/or comprehension of language-particular rules which are otherwise unpredictable utilizing principles of universal grammar (Goodluck 1991).
Other researchers have pointed out that motherese is not universal among the world's cultures, and argue 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 at all until they have reached a certain age. In others, it is more usual to speak to children as one would speak to anyone else, with some vocabulary simplifications. Furthermore, even where baby-talk is used, sometimes the parent simplifies words making it full of complicated grammatical constructs, mispronounced or non-existent words. Often parents will tend to refer only to objects and events in the immediate vicinity. Baby-talk often has the parent repeating the child's utterances back to him/her, and since children employ a wide variety of phonological and morphological simplifications (mostly distance assimilation or reduplication) in learning to speak, this results in "classic" baby-words like na-na for grandmother or din-din for dinner, where the child has seized on a stressed syllable of the input and then repeated it to make a word.
In any case, the child eventually acquires the local language without difficulty, regardless of the degree or type of exposure to baby-talk. However, motherese could have an important role in affecting the rate of language acquisition and the quality of the language acquired.
As noted above, "baby talk" often involves shortening words to make them simple to say, including nonverbal sounds and slurred or simplified versions of ordinary words, but it also includes a vocabulary of its own. Some of these are handed down from parent to parent or invented by parents and are not known outside of a particular family, but others are more or less widespread.
A fair number of baby-talk and nursery words refer to bodily functions or private parts, partially because the words are easier to pronounce, partly to reduce adult discomfort when using them, and partly to make it possible for children to discuss these topics without breaking adult taboos.
Some examples of widely-used baby talk words and phrases in English that are not in standard dictionaries include:
- baba (bottle)
- beddy-bye (go to bed)
- binkie (pacifier or blanket)
- boo-boo (wound)
- bubby (brother)
- didee (diaper)
- din-din (dinner)
- ickle (little)
- icky (disgusting)
- jammies (pyjamas)
- nana (grandmother)
- oopsie-daisy (small accident)
- poo-poo (defecation)
- potty (toilet)
- sissy (sister)
- stinky (fæces)
- wawa (water)
- wee-wee (urination)
- widdle (little)
- wuv (love)
- yucky (disgusting)
- yum-yum (meal time)
- 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?"
- At early points in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter's cousin, Dudley, is the subject of frequent baby talk by Harry's "non-magic" relatives, while Harry is always spoken to sternly and seriously. This technique is used to show how much that part of the family dotes on "Ickle Duddykins".
- At the end of The Miracle Worker, when Helen and her teacher are at a well with their hands under the faucet, Helen begins to say wa-wa, her baby-talk word for water.
- In the episode "Baby, Talk Is Cheap" of Sex and the City, Samantha dates a man who uses baby talk (as a way to avoid intimacy) in bed. He says he loves her "titty witties".
- In the Megaman Legends series there is a robot named, Bon Bonne, the baby of the Bonne family, whose only speech is "Babbuu babbuu", The only people who can understand the gibberish are some of the Servbots, Teisel Bonne, and Tron Bonne.
- 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.
- Jennifer Lynch, University of Massachusets Amherst. http://www.umass.edu/writprog/willing/lynch.htm
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