Baby talk

Baby talk

Baby talk, also referred to as caretaker speech, infant-directed speech (IDS) or child-directed speech (CDS)[1][2][3][4] and informally as "motherese", "parentese", "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 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 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, 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 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 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.[7] 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.[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). It has been also suggested that motherese is crucial for children to acquire the ability to ask questions.[9] Some[who?] 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

Researchers Bryant and Barrett (2007) [10] have suggested (as have others before them, e.g., Fernald, 1992 [11]) that baby talk exists universally across all cultures and is a species-specific adaptation. Other researchers[who?] 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 Samoan 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.[clarification needed] 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 or reduplication) in learning speech, such interaction results in the "classic" baby-words like na-na for grandmother, wawa for water, 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. Terms of endearment, such as poppet may be used for the same purpose.

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 such as police dogs and guard dogs, 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!"

Foreigner talk

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 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, others differ in meaning from place to place, or are passed down from parent to parent over generations, while others are quite widely known and used within a large majority of families, such as wawa for water, num-num for a meal, or beddy-bye for bedtime, and are considered standard or traditional words.

Baby talk, language regardless, usually consists of a muddle of words, including names for family members, names for animals, eating and foods, bodily functions, sleeping, and may be sprinkled with nonverbal utterances, such as goo goo ga ga. 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. Moreover, such words reduce adults' discomfort with the subject matter, and make it possible for children to discuss such things without breaking adult taboos. However, some, such as pee-pee and poo-poo have been very widely used in reference to bodily functions, so adults have begun recognising patterns and ability to mention such subjects without adult negativity has recently faded.

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

  • baba (blanket, bath, bottle, baby or an onomatopoeic term for sheep)
  • beddy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
  • binkie (pacifier)
  • blankie (blanket)
  • boo-boo (wound, pain or bruise)
  • bot-bot (bottle)
  • botty (rear end)
  • bow-wow (dog)
  • brekkie (breakfast)
  • bubby or bubba (brother)
  • choo-choo (train)
  • dada (dad, daddy)
  • didee (diaper, chiefly American)
  • din-din (dinner)
  • doedoes (In South African English, the equivalent of beddy-bye)
  • doggy or doggie (dog)
  • dum-dum (dummy, British equivalent of pacifier)
  • drinky (drink)
  • gee-gee (horse)
  • goo goo ga ga (nonverbal utterance)
  • huggle or huggie (hug, Huggies is also a brand of diapers and baby products)
  • lickle (little)
  • moo-moo or moo-cow (cow)
  • milkie or milky (milk)
  • no-no (taboo)
  • 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 (urinate or penis)
  • pewie (smelling bad)
  • poo-poo or doo-doo (defecation)
  • poopie or poopy (defecation)
  • potty or rarely pot-pot (toilet, often used to refer to a small chamber pot-like one specifically designed for a young child, or more rarely a toilet seat modifier to fit a young child's size)
  • poppet (term of endearment for a young child)
  • puffer (train)
  • quick-quick (haste, doing something quickly)
  • scrummy (tasty)
  • sissy (sister)
  • sleepy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
  • stinky (defecation)
  • teensy-weensy (small)
  • tummy (stomach)
  • 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)
  • mama (mother or rarely milk)
  • uppie or upsie (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)
  • doggy (from dog)
  • milky (from milk, also spelled as milkie)
  • drinky (from drink)
  • poopy (from poop)
  • uppie (from up)
  • ducky (from duck)

("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 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, at, for, my, so and as, thus resulting in an incomplete sentence, such as I need go potty or I want blanket. Sometimes, demonstratives are used instead of pronouns (he, I, it, she 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 two words through repetition, such as That's a car, Susie. It's a car. Some parents substitute a particular word 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.

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, pee-pee, potty, yucky, no-no and tummy are sometimes used after infancy, just as colloquial or informal terms. However, reduplication is not always practised, for example pee-pee becomes 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 noun, countable or uncountable) 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 an expression 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 and nana 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.

Duplications and onomatopoeia

Often baby talk words consist of a single syllable duplicated, such as mama, dada, poo-poo, pee-pee, baba, boo-boo, bot-bot, num-num, dum-dum and wee-wee. This is partly due to repetition for emphasis and because when babies are around 6-8 months of age, short words begin forming, and often these imitate a sound, or the first syllable of a multiple-syllable word. Some will speak without repetition, and repetition often fades off and becomes proper words at 8-10 months. At a similar age, a sound pattern will begin, using words with similar sounds from stressed syllables, such as mama, dada and baba. These, such as mama, dada, baba, wawa, nana, are often imitations of a baby's first utterances which take the shape of a word.

Words can be made from a diminutive with an /i/ sound at the end, reduplicated, but the first letter of the second replaced with a /w/ or rarely another letter, for example teensy-weensy, puppy-wuppy or binkie-winkie. Realistic language examples followiong this same pattern, known as partial duplications include knick-knack, wishy-washy, and mish-mash although these do not use the first letter as the 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 (sheep) Others, which do not relate to animals, include vroom-vroom (car) and choo-choo (train).

Differences in pronunciation

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/ and soft /th/ as /f/ or /s/.

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.[12]

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.

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!"
"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 (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."
  • In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (2003), J. K. Rowling gives this example of baby talk, from Bellatrix Lestrange to Harry Potter: "The little baby woke up fwightened and fort what it dweamed was twoo."

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 (1): 29–39. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2003.07.001. PMID 15183597. 
  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. ^ Joseph Jordania (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. Tbilisi: Logos. ISBN 99940-31-81-3. 
  10. ^ Bryant, G. A. and Barrett, H. C. (2007). Recognizing intentions in infant-directed speech: Evidence for universals. Psychological Science, 18(8), 746-751.
  11. ^ Fernald, A. (1992). Human maternal vocalizations to infants as biologically relevant signals. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 391–428). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ "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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