The Etymology of Baby Speech

I never knew how much I’d love my baby’s attempts at speech until I heard her little voice for the first time. Every time she honored me with a syllable, all I could do was try to salvage my melting heart and sing, “Cuuuuuute!”

The experts and most parents will agree that your baby’s first “speech” will consist of the easy-to-make bilabial consonant sounds– or, simply put, sounds you make with just your lips: “bah”, “mah,” and possibly “pah.” That makes a lot of sense– it certainly takes more effort and coordination to make the alveolar sounds (e.g. “tuh”, “duh”), which is really just a fancy word I retained from class to mean a sound formed by the tongue hitting the backs of or the gums behind the upper front teeth. But it never occurred to me that there might be a reason why some babies prefer one syllable or sound to the others. I thought about it one day and the answer became quite clear.

Today’s Letter of the Day is…
My daughter’s first utterance was “bah.” For a good while, it was “Bah bah bah bah BAH bah bah…” for everything. Even now, with the addition of “mah” and “doi” and “glrrr/shlrr” (the latter two, of which, are rather unconventional syllables if you think about it), she still prefers her bah’s. When she sees her stuffed bunny, it’s “bah-mmm.” When my husband comes home from work, she turns toward the sound of the opening door and says, happily, “Ba-ba!” (which is Chinese for “father,” in any case, but she tends to use the “ba-ba!” for nearly anything else that makes her happy).

I was genuinely worried that “bah” would be the only thing she’d say, aside from blowing raspberries. Then I realized just how many words in the baby universe start with “B” or the “bah” sound:
– bunny
– blanket (or blankie, usually)
– baby
– bird (or birdie, usually referring to my flying mount)
– bear (the toy, nickname or my hunter’s pet)
– bottle (used synonymously with her sippy cup)
– bump! (what we say when she falls down while trying to walk)
– boom! (pretending we’re giants making big, giant-walking noises)
– ball
– bowl
– bib
– book
– babble
– bananas

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. There’s probably more. Couple this word list with the amount of “talking out loud” I do when doing things around the house and such, my daughter probably hears the B sound more than anything else. Many other things like “pen” or “mama” involve other bilabial sounds that, while it sounds different to the baby’s ear, looks similar when in the process of making the sound.

The Silly Faces of Linguistics
I remember the first month or so of Linguistics 1 involved only one thing: looking at fellow students and making sounds at them. There was a lot of awkward laughter involved, though I’m quite sure it was how I made some new friends, too. I’ve become incredibly conscious about how words and sounds feel in my mouth since then. Yet, just as I’ve somehow turned my anthropology studies into a method of teaching my daughter object recognition, I can also turn all of those awkward moments in linguistics into language lessons.

On the changing table, I started showing her the diaper before I put it on her and say, clearly and slowly, “Die-per.” If Elmo’s on the diaper (our diapers have Sesame Street characters on them), I will also say, “El-moh.” I open my mouth wide and show her my tongue hitting the gums for the “dih” sound in diaper, and round out my mouth when making the “oh” in Elmo. The hardest part, really, is distinguishing the way the mouth moves when making the different bilabial sounds. When you do it on your own, you can feel the way a “bah” sound is softer on the lips than the “pah” sound. At least with the “mmm” sound, you can bring in your lips into a thin line and hum. But how do you translate such a subtlety to a baby?

If nothing else with these exercises, my daughter often stares at me like she’s trying to figure out the next theory of astronomical relativity through what I just said. Usually, however, she thinks it’s hilarious watching my face shift and change with each sound. With luck on a good day, she tries to imitate me. I’m sure Jane Goodall would agree with me when I say such basic things are a matter of “monkey see, monkey do.”

(I’m aware that chimpanzees are apes, or simians as it were, and not monkeys. As much as my daughter might act like one, she’s not an actual monkey, either.)

Babble-to-Object Recognition
It’s only recently that my daughter’s become more familiar with the things in the environment around her. A few weeks ago, I showed her a picture of herself and she actually said, “Bay-bee.” With other pictures of babies in stores, she still says the standard “ba-ba,” but it’s a form of recognition we’re not going to pass up. She recognizes that there are other babies in the world, just like her, and it makes her ridiculously happy.

I admit, I still feel rather silly saying simple things out loud in a slow, enunciated voice. And then repeating it. On the other hand, I have to stop using “baby talk,” because otherwise the baby won’t develop her speech correctly or get very confused. At this point, the development of baby speech is still a one-to-one function. Food cannot be simultaneously “food,” “nom noms” and “foodies” right now, just as water cannot be “wah-wah” and “water.”

Let me warn you now: babies recognize and understand a lot more than they can communicate or even show. Very early on, my daughter would smile at the word “cute” because she knew it was something good in reference to herself. She knows simple command actions, like bringing something to me when I ask her to or crawling over to be picked up if we’re headed out the door. And one of her favorite games is crawling a little bit away (or walking with help), then bolting around the corner when she hears, “Where’s Baby going?”

With all that said, I think I’m going to recondition myself to saying “Curse!” instead of cursing as I used to do when I worked at the ice cream shop. Oh, and I need to stop using baby talk, too. Which is a shame, really, because it makes the world that much cuter.


About Toriah the Mom

Mom, quasi-librarian, gamer, writer
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