In Mrs. Ross’s kindergarten class, when every other kid could say yellow, Billy Brinkelow could only manage lellow. One day, out of nowhere Billy utters the word “yellow.” Unsure whether I heard correctly, I asked him to do it again. Sure enough, he says “yellow.”
I waved Mrs. Ross over. “Billy,” I said, “tell Mrs. Ross.” He stared blankly ahead, stunned by his sudden mastery. His lips moved and for the third time ever said, “yellow.” Mrs. Ross gave an ecstatic gasp, as though Billy had demonstrated fluency in Latin. She prompted him to say yellow a few more times until he clearly had the hang of it – Billy gaining confidence with each repetition.
Finally Mrs. Ross got everyone’s attention. “Class, Billy has something he’d like to tell you all! Billy, why don’t you stand up on the table!” She reached into someone’s brown paper lunch bag and produced a banana. By this point, blond Billy Brinkelow was beaming. We looked up at him expectantly. “Billy,” Mrs. Ross began, “what color is this banana?” With fists clenched in determination and his freckles nearly popping off his cheeks, Billy mustered all of his pronunciation prowess and belted out the word with great fanfare, “LLLLLLLELLOW!”
Oh man. Another afternoon spent at the playground – another afternoon of listening to parents verbally patronize their kids with baby-talk.
Don’t get me wrong: babies forming first words = cuteness on the scale of otters. I think instead of spaghetti I used to say “pasghetti.” I was adorable. Or my nephew who used to say “misappeared” for disappeared. Runs in the family.
What I must politely endure are adults who patronize their children in sing-songy voices, eyebrows always strenuously arched. Today it was, “Do you have to go tinkle?”
If in public I have to check myself using offensive words like schmegma, taint and queef, then it’s only fair to ask others to refrain from pee-pee, potty, and paci (for pacifier). What you say at home is your business.
We parents can get disoriented in the babysphere, making it hard to hear yourself. So here’s a handy list of grating words, with suggested alternatives where applicable.
Owie: Always said with an exaggerated frowny-face. “Did my baby get an owie?” It’s dehumanizing… to the parent. Instead say boo-boo. It’s cuter, plus you’ve got all the letters required to spell “boob.” Exception to the rule: It’s okay to say owie if your son’s name is Howie.
Lolly: Phonetically speaking, “lollipop” is as pleasing as they come. Any diminutive ending in -olly will invariably annoy. This is true of the British brolly, for umbrella. And doubly true for calling a doll a dolly. (In no way is this meant to disparage the -olly sound in its natural context; golly, trolley, and melancholy are all splendid words.) Exception to the rule: When humming Schoolhouse Rocks.
Num-Num: This is a catchall for “food.” As in, “Time to open up for some num-num!” Usually spoken with the zealous enthusiasm of a Scientologist. I’m hesitant to slam this one for pedagogic reasons. But the reason why requires a short detour in psycholinguistics. Briefly:
Studies show that baby-talk actually facilitates speech in infants. Baby-talk (or “infant-directed speech,” as it’s called) generally involves
“… a slower rate of speech, a higher fundamental frequency, greater pitch variation, longer pauses, characteristic repetitive intonational structures, and simplified sentence structure.” Thiessen, E.D., Hill, E.A., & Saffran, J.R. (2005). Infant directed speech facilitates word segmentation. Infancy, p. 54.
The above referenced study (from Carnegie Mellon University) indicated that regular speech makes it hard for language learners to discern where words begin and end. But infant-directed speech helps to break up and highlight individual words. Repeated syllables are an especially important cue to babies, as in da-da and wa-wa. But the syllable in question should have some useful real word reference, as with the da in daddy. So num-num does not overcome its dissonance for the purposes of teaching. (Note also that the study’s authors concluded that infant-directed speech is most effective as a supplement to regular speech – not a replacement.)
Binky: I don’t know the etymology of binky as a stand-in for “pacifier.” But cut it out. There’s a fine line between cute and cutesy, and this crosses the line. Exception to the rule: Binky is the prototypical Homer character in Matt Groening’s seminal Life Is Hell comic.
Sissy and Stinky: I’ve heard these. As in, “Do you have to make a sissy or a stinky?” No one wants to hear that. Exceptions to the rule: when sissy is used correctly, to mean “yellow-belly lily-liver namby-pampy pansy-ass chicken-shit” and stinky is malodorous.
Uppie: There’s no need for a PR campaign to remake “up” into a cuddly word. It’s not Phillip Morris. Simply saying “up” will suffice.
Do you see a pattern emerging? Basically, if baby-talk originates from your kid, then it is to be celebrated as the cutest thing ever uttered by humans. Improvised gibberish from your offspring should be permanently adopted as household vernacular. Make videos and lure friends over for surprise screenings. (They’ll ignore it on youtube.) But baby-talk that adults suggest to their kids is cloying and annoying. Like moo-cow. Okay two more:
Table for 2½: Technically this isn’t infant-directed speech. It’s baby-talk directed at adults. Like when you go up to a restaurant’s hostess and say with a conciliatory smirk, “table for two and a half,” while indicating your baby. He counts as half a person. Highchair. We get it.
Targét: This is the faux French pronunciation of Target, pronounced tar-zhay. It’s a sarcastic acknowledgment that the big-box store is a no-frills antithesis of French glamor and style. Admittedly, this pronunciation is irresistible. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with baby-talk. But I’m starting a campaign against it, and I have no other forums in which to advance my agenda.
There is one glaring exception to these rules. Baby-talk is always permissible when addressed to my cat, Haywood. I use way more baby-talk with him than with my actual baby. Wouldn’t you? Awwww! My wittle baby kitten is hungwee for a big bowl of fwesh milk! He’s going to lap it up wif his rough wittle tongue: