Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Baby talk across the centuries

Most languages probably have a few words used especially for addressing babies. However, Siwi seems to have a lot more than I know from English or Arabic (I've recorded something like 40). One of these (already noted in Laoust 1931) is mbuwwa "water" (the normal Siwi word is aman). mbuwwa, meaning "water" or "drink", turns out to be rather widespread: they use it in baby talk in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Malta, Sicily, and probably a few other places for which I haven't found sources. The remarkable part is that Ferguson managed to track down a historical source for this word. Varro, a Roman grammarian of the first century BC, gives bua as the nursery word for "drink" (presumably to be related to bibere, the adult verb for "drink".) (Unfortunately, I haven't managed to find the relevant work online.) If the connection is correct, then this word (possibly along with some others, like pappa for "bread" or "food") has persisted in Mediterranean baby talk for at least 2000 years, apparently without ever passing into adult speech.

So what special words do you use in your language when talking to babies?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe I read once that not only does baby talk vary from language to language, some languages (like Berber, supposedly) don't have it at all.

Japanese baby talk involves specific phonological shifts, a few special words (like nenne for 'sleep'), and using onomatopoeia plus an honorific for animals.

Paul D.

John Cowan said...

The Wikipedia article "Baby talk" provides 33 examples of English baby-talk vocabulary, and it leaves out quite a lot, so 40 does not seem large to me.

Baby-talk has a lot of features besides vocabulary, of course. Wikipedia points out that ordinary English does not have productive diminutives, but baby-talk English does. However, the article does not mention what I think is the most salient grammatical feature of English baby-talk, the use of 3rd person labels for both speaker and listener, as in "What does baby/Johnny/Mary want?"

David Marjanović said...

Widespread German baby-talk words are, off the top of my head, restricted to nether regions and their excretions, plus a small number of onomatopoietic coinages. However, the use of diminutives and the nickname suffix -i on any nouns is rampant.

And of course many families adopt terms that their babies invented.

Using the 3rd person also happens, because it's a way of getting to apply more nicknames.

SillyBahrainiGirl said...

mbuwwa!
I am from Bahrain and haven't heard this word for years! We too use it to refer to water when talking to children!!

MMcM said...

Ferguson in JSTOR.

Varro in Google Books.

Plus, a note on survivals in Romance dialects.

SnowLeopard said...

By way of comparison, the sketch of Hopi grammar at the end of the Hopi Dictionary Project's Hopiikwa Lavaytutuveni lists 80 words of baby-talk Hopi beside their non-baby equivalents. Some seem obvious: "mother" as "mama" in babyese and "itangu" otherwise. Other connections are less clear, such as the babyese "heeheti" in lieu of "sulawti" to mean "become all gone, nothing left".

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bulbul said...

pappa for "bread" or "food"
You have got to be kidding. "Papať" is the Slovak BT word for "to eat", "papa" (feminine) means food and now you're telling me it's found in the Mediterranean as well? Awesome.
As for "mbuwa", there is the verb "bumbať" (Czech "bumbát") meaning "to drink". "Hajať" = "to sleep" is the last BT work I can think of, but the search is already underway for more.

bulbul said...

Got it: Varia VIII, pages 20-23, contains an exhaustive list of baby talk words in Slovak.

Lameen Souag said...

Great comments everybody - thanks!

Paul: Berber (and not just Siwi) definitely does have baby talk. (Bynon did a good article on it.) nenne is almost exactly the same as Arabic nənni.

John: I clearly don't spend enough time with English-speaking babies: most of the words in the Wikipedia list are unfamiliar to me (baba, num nums, bubby...), and several seem like normal if rather informal English (stinky, yucky, jammies.) But whereas most of the English words given are transparently related to their non-baby-talk counterparts, most of the Siwi ones are completely different.

MMcM: Excellent Google-sleuthing - thanks!

sillybahrainigirl: Wow, I didn't realise mbuwwa went all the way from Morocco to Bahrain. I wonder if it's used even further east?

Bulbul: A great response as ever. Pappa (or babba) is Moroccan and Algerian baby-talk too (both for Arabic and Berber speakers). I used to think it was from French pain, but it may be a lot older than that.

David Marjanović said...

You have got to be kidding. "Papať" is the Slovak BT word for "to eat", "papa" (feminine) means food and now you're telling me it's found in the Mediterranean as well? Awesome.

You won't be surprised, then, to find it in between as well: my dad habitually refers to vegetable soups as papica.

The implication of "sticky porridge-stuff" has spread to some places in Germany, where pappen means "to glue" (with, I think, connotations of coarse movements), and Pappe itself, "cardboard", may refer to an intermediate stage in its production process. Or it might just be fresh onomatopoeia.

"Hajať" = "to sleep"

Hei(a) is an interjection that occurs in nursery songs, and in die Heia gehen is baby talk for going to sleep.

I used to think it was from French pain, but it may be a lot older than that.

MMcM's third link has "Varro apud Non." noting quum cibum et potionem buas ac pappas vocent (parvuli).

Now to find it in Etruscan ;-)

David Marjanović said...

Oops, wanted to mention Pampe, a word widespread in Germany for all yucky slimy porridgy stuff that is ostensibly to eat.

SP said...

In India people of different regions use "mam" or "mammam" as the word for food when speaking to babies. It stands out in my mind because it's not related to the word for food in the north Indian languages. But I suppose it's not a far stretch to "mama" or "mammaries."

SP said...

I didn't read the first comment till now, but am startled to hear "nenne" is used for sleep in Japanese too! It's "ninni" in Hindi (a diminutive of "neend" or "sleep").

John Cowan said...

Before jumping to conclusions about borrowing or inheritance of baby talk, everyone with an interest ought to read Larry Trask's article (PDF) on mama/papa words, which restates and expands on Roman Jakobson's generally accepted theory of their origins.

James Crippen said...

I have to interject here with my favorite example of baby talk that leaves acquisitionists puzzled. Tlingit, the language I work on, has no labials (unless you count /w/ as a labial). No labiodentals either. So what do you say for “mommy”? Turns out it’s atlée /ʔʌtɬʰíː/ or atléi /ʔʌtɬʰéː/, derived from adult Tlingit axh tláa /ʔʌχ tɬʰáː/ “my mother”. Yes, that’s right. It’s baby talk with an aspirated lateral affricate.

I haven’t confirmed this but I have a report from one speaker that the baby talk “daddy” is xhéesh /χíːʃ/, from adult axh éesh /ʔʌχ ʔíːʃ/ “my father”. And “food” or “eat” is the reduplicated xháxhá /χʌ́χʌ́/, from the verb root xhaa “eat”.

Wejṭuṭi said...

I know of the following baby talk vocabulary in Kabyle with no connection with adult talk:
-'Σuεuc' for 'Ayefki' meaning 'Milk'
- 'Diddi' doesn't have a litteral equivalent in adult talk and is used to refer to something harmful
- 'Buccu' could be the equivalent of 'Uccen' (Wolf) but means exclusively 'Ghost' in baby talk.
-'Ctata (berriku)' for 'Aγyul' meaning 'Donkey'. This one also made it into adult speech where it is usually used by someone who does not want to sound "gross" when calling someone a donkey!
- 'Bibbiḥ' (pronounced vivviḥ) for 'Asemmiḍ' meaning 'Cold' (weather)
- 'Bibiḥ' for 'Icettiḍen' meaning 'Clothes'
- 'Ciccu' for 'Aksum' meaning 'Meat'
- 'Xuc' this is the verb 'Gen' or 'Eṭṭeṣ' meaning 'sleep'
- 'Qaqqa' for 'Taḥlawatt/tagaṭutt...' for 'Sweets, cakes etc
-'Mbuwwa, Pappa' also exist in kabyle baby talk

Of course there are dozens more which are just contractions of adult vocabulary, to me they shouldn't be called baby talk but baby version of adult talk; that's different. Hope this helps.

Jens said...

Sp wrote: "In India people of different regions use "mam" or "mammam" as the word for food when speaking to babies." It's interesting, because just like nenne, Japanese shares this with Hindi. The word "manman" is used to mean "eat". Actually, I think it is sound symbolism. "Manman" sounds like chewing on food. "Nenne" is probably from the sound of snoring. I think that a lot of baby sounds have some element of sound symbolism, like "choochoo train" in English. In Japanese it's also "shushu-popo", which is just an imitation of a train's sound.

Alan Gunn said...

Using the third person in talking to the very young makes sense because it takes a while for kids to figure out that words like "you" and "me" aren't names. I can remember my son wanting to call himself "you" when he was maybe a year old.

David Marjanović said...

I can remember my son wanting to call himself "you" when he was maybe a year old.

I'm told I did the same.