The Ecphorizer

The Mouths of Babes
Gareth Penn

Issue #20 (April 1983)

The linguistic roots of baby talk

We were returning home from a day trip to another county. My four-year-old daughter was lost. Just a few miles from home, and she still didn't see any familiar landmarks. Finally, we passed a movie theater where she had been several times. "Oh," she said, "I renoculize this

I was utterly mystified by Amanda's use of 'dordy' to denote Graham crackers.

now." I drove several miles before I had stopped laughing over the breathtaking ingenuousness of what she had said.

[quoteright]The speech of children is often so startling - a phenomenon so delicate that if abused, degenerates into merely cute - that it has given rise to an entire folklore. Language is a complicated thing. Nobody, Noam Chomsky to the contrary notwithstanding, really knows exactly how it works, how it is generated, or how it originated. It would all be so much simpler if there were a direct link between nature and linguistic abstraction. That is where, at least in the folklore, children come in, as the intermediaries, the missing link, between the physical and verbal universes.

Tarzan never said, "Me Tarzan, you Jane," before his portrayal by Johnny Weissmuller. Young Lord Greystoke -- that was Tarzan's real name -- read the books he found in his father's cabin in the jungle and taught himself human speech from them. The books were all in French (never mind asking how he could learn any language from books that nobody had taught him to read). If you're ever stuck for a trivia stumper, ask what Tarzan's first human language was, after his ape-talk period. New cliche: "Moi Tarzan, toi Jeanne."

A few years ago, the media discovered the Kennedy Twins in San Diego. Raised in semi-isolation, these darling little girls spoke a language that only they understood. It resembled no known form of speech. The media fell head over heels in love with them. Not only had they reinvented language from scratch, they were photogenic (cute), too. They found their way into the Enguirer, along with BIGFOOT IN LONG BEACH, UFO FLEET BLITZES EARTH, and GET RID OF YOUR LOVE HANDLES IN JUST 16 DAYS.

When the disappointment came, not such a great fuss was made about it. The disappointment was that close analysis of their speech showed that they were speaking English with non-standard pronunciation. One of their words had 18 different pronunciations, and the differences between the 18 forms had no relationship to meaning. The effect of isolation on their language skills was merely deprivation of adult models. Far from being the linguistic geniuses the papers had made them out to be, the Kennedy girls were actually semi-morons.

About 150 years ago, a similar case turned up in Nuremberg. A teenager who was given the name "Kaspar Hauser" appeared out of nowhere, evidently having been confined to a root cellar for the first 16 or so years of his life without human company. He had never been taught to speak, and when he finally acquired speech, he used peculiar rules which nobody else ever fully understood. After his death at the hands of a masked assassin, it was rumored that he was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Baden. He was widely regarded as a kind of naive genius.

You still hear stories about how the Russians, with their callous disregard for the individual, raised a pair of twins in total isolation, and that the twins reinvented Sanskrit, which the same people who tell this story erroneously believe to be the most ancient language. The same story made the rounds during the Enlightenment, but the language the twins reinvented was Hebrew, which was thought at that time to be the most ancient of languages for Scriptural reasons (not ignorance). Original credit for the story has to go, however, to the Greek historian Herodotus, who first told it in the 5th century B.C.

In Herodotus' version, it was an Egyptian king named Psammetichus, and the children he caused to be isolated reinvented Phrygian, which Herodotus' contemporaries therefore regarded as the most ancient of languages. Psammetichus came to this conclusion because the children, when they met him after several years of being raised in isolation, greeted him with something that sounded like the Phrygian word for "bread." Why the children should have addressed a king as "bread" never occurred either to Psammetichus or Herodotus. (Perhaps they meant that he was well-bread.)

Baby-talk covers a lot of lexicographic loopholes, too. If you are writing a dictionary and can't document the origin of a word, attribute it to baby-onomatopoieia. The G.&C. Merriam Company, publishers of the only dictionary that can truly claim to be a "Webster's", says that our slang word "boobs" (meaning the female breasts) imitates the sound made by a suckling infant. Anyone who has ever eavesdropped on a breast-feeding will be mystified by this explanation. My Lexer says that the Middle High German buoben ("boys") has the secondary meaning of "the female breasts." Barring a statistically infinitesimal coincidence, the American slang word must have come from the Middle High German, and the obvious intermediary is Yiddish. (NB: G.&C. Merriam Co. has been alerted, and they have tuned their lexicographic radars to detect a Yiddish attestation, at which time they will rewrite their etymology.)

When Amanda was 19 months old, I made a complete survey of her verbal stock, then some 39 words, not to mention drawing up a sketch of her grammar. This may sound like the linguistic equivalent of hauling out the baby pictures in order to elicit a chorus of politely suppressed yawns, but a few examples do serve to illustrate some general principles about children's speech as the reflection of developing minds, and it is not just because Amanda is my daughter that I think she has produced some classics.

She called her older brother "bubby" -- a simplified form of "brother." Like all older brothers, he was utterly rotten to her. "Bubby" in most contexts was pronounced BUBbee; when she was yelling at him for having done something mean, it was pronounced bubBEE. In due time, bUbBEE extended itself to a universal form of reproach. If I took away from her something she wanted, I got a bubBEE just as readily as her brother would have done. Translation follows: BUBbee is "brother." bubBEE is "brother-like behavior, i.e., horrid."

With children, context is everything. I was utterly mystified by Amanda's use of "dordy" to denote Graham crackers. It was only about six months after she first adopted the terminology that I recalled that she had been running around a construction site with a Graham cracker in hand, dropped it inadvertently into a pile of filth, picked it up, and was about to stuff it into her little maw, when I no-no'd her with, "Don't eat that -it's DIRTY." She thought I was telling her what it was. And she was right. But she thought I meant it was a "dirty."

I think the most telling example of the way Amanda's mind worked at 19 months has to do with a derivation from children's literature. Her very first book was a Babar The Elephant book. It was way too advanced for her, but I used to go through the illustrations with her, naming the animals that appeared in them. Somehow, she got the idea that baBAR was the baby-word, "elephant" the adult-word, for the same thing. There was a familiar something in her environment that had a phonetic similarity to "elephant," namely the telephone. By what must have been a process of analogy, she reasoned (this is my reconstruction of her reasoning): "ELEPHANT is to baBAR as TELEPHONE is" It was only about 18 months ago that she stopped calling the telephone "baBOM."

I brought out my written survey of Amanda's language at 19 months a while back, and I quizzed her on it to see if she remembered any of her own baby-talk. I tried out "bubBEE" and "dordy" and a bunch of other things, including "baBOM." But she's put all that behind her. She didn't renoculize a single one. 

Gareth Penn has recently been seen carrying a spear at jousts put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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Gareth Penn

Gareth Penn is probably best known as the greatest amateur Zodiac sleuth after his many articles in The Ecphorizer that lead to the identity of Zodiac. However, Penn is much more than that as he has a keen inquisitive mind that finds an interesting story in just about anything from a memorial to a little-known soldier in a park in Vallejo, CA, to his notes about animals, to plumbing the depths of the limerick. Penn's prolific pen is evident in that he has made a contribution to every issue of The Ecphorizer up through Issue #33 (and counting!).