Baby Talk

A First Language: The Early Stages

by Roger Brown
Harvard, 437 pp., $15.00


by Dan I. Slobin
Scott, Foresman, 148 pp., $3.40 (paper)

Language Acquisition and Communicative Choice

by Susan M. Ervin-Tripp
Stanford, 398 pp., $10.95

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Fittingly enough, Joyce began Portrait of the Artist with a bedtime story in baby talk. But the process by which we learn to speak (“we” refers to all human beings, speaking every language on earth) is considerably more complex than baby talk. Among the mistaken notions about baby talk are that it represents some “natural,” instinctive way children begin to speak and that it is an adult imitation of childish speech. The truth is that baby talk is simply a variant of the adult language, taught to children by adults who then, after a few years, encourage the children to stop using it.

The really fascinating thing about baby talk is the universality of its linguistic form and content, as demonstrated by a comparison of the way it is spoken in six quite different languages: American English, Spanish, Syrian Arabic, Marathi of India, Gilyak of Siberia, and Comanche Indian of North America. The actual baby-talk vocabularies in the six languages are of course different; nevertheless, the words reveal surprising similarities in linguistic characteristics. All six languages simplify clusters of consonants (as English speakers do when they substitute tummy for stomach); they reduplicate syllables (choo-choo); they alter words in consistent ways to form diminutives (such as the y in doggy); they eliminate pronouns (daddy wants instead of I want); and most of the languages drop unstressed syllables (as when good-bye becomes bye or bye-bye). The existence of such similarities in widely different languages suggests that adults with no knowledge of one another’s tongues have arrived at much the same linguistic formulas.

It is now also becoming apparent largely because of the research by the authors of the three books under review—that all children pass through stages in learning to speak, regardless of the language of the speech community they are born into, and that these stages have nothing to do with traditional ideas about “baby talk.” Psycholinguists have collected much evidence that English-speaking children of all ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic classes go through strikingly similar stages of development in learning to speak; furthermore, these stages appear to be very much the same for children whose native tongues are more than thirty languages from widely disparate language families.

No wonder that the recent growth of interest in the way children acquire their native language has been phenomenal, beginning a little over fifteen years ago and rapidly increasing in the past few years. As Roger Brown writes:

All over the world the first sentences of small children are being as painstakingly taped, transcribed, and analyzed as if they were the latest sayings of great sages. Which is a surprising fate for the likes of “That doggie,” “No more milk,” and “Hit ball.”

The intellectual capacities of infants and young children are…

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