For the sake of science, I’m just gonna throw this out there: I frequently talk baby talk with my close friends and family. Lots of them do it too, and there’s no baby, pet, or significant other around. This is a use of baby talk that’s been studied very little. More on that later, but first, why do I speak in this horribly affected and annoying way, you wonder? The short response is, I actually think it’s fun, and the people I’m talking to do it too.
I used to think baby talk was just an anomaly of my sister, one of her friends, myself, and a certain Arizona linguist. The sister group and the linguist group had no overlap, but still, small N. Lately though I’ve been hearing it more, and seeing it frequently on my sisters’ Facebook page (as well as on several of her friends’). We’ve even got multiple boys doing it now, and in public places. People are writing it. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you Exhibit A. Which does not, by the way, include my sister or me.
Exhibit A gives excellent examples of various features of baby talk. Baby talk by adolescents or adults is meant to imitate infant baby talk, of which I’ll give a quick-and-dirty non-exhaustive list of features, with corresponding examples from Exhibit A:
- Gliding, changing “l” and “r” to “w” mostly but also “y” sounds (“good wuck“). When it’s an “l” becoming a “w”, it’s called L-vocalization,
- Stopping, changing fricative sounds like the “th” in “thinking” to “t” (“there you go tinkin“),
- Fronting, moving the place of articulation forward in the vocal tract (“hang out wiff us”),
- Syllable simplification, like expanding a syllable with a coda to two coda-less syllables (so bed becomes beddy). Simplifying somewhat, a syllable coda is the set of consonants after the vowel in a syllable,
- Lack of function words, like the lack of was in “Cuwz I never invited”.
Like infant baby talk, there’s substantial variation in adults’ imitative baby talk.
It’s kind of hard to try to search for works on baby talk that’s not, well, directed at babies, but the Wikipedia article on baby talk lists the following non-child-directed uses:
- patronizing or derogatory baby talk. This use of baby talk is intended to make the listener feel like a baby,
- flirtatious baby talk, baby talk in romantic relationships,
- baby talk with pets. I’m guilty of this use too.
The article also lists “foreigner talk”, i.e. the simplifications people make when talking to a non-native speaker. But that totally lacks the affective component that is crucial to the other uses of baby talk, so I don’t think it should be included. A brief search on Google Scholar reveals that there’s another type of non-child-directed baby talk:
- baby talk to the elderly.
I was thinking that again, this was simple utterance simplification, lacking the affective component I find crucial in baby talk, but apparently intonation in baby talk to the elderly is indistinguishable from that used with two-year-olds. Ouch. I personally would find that patronizing, but apparently it could be of use. Read the paper.
This updated classification is only lacking one thing: baby talk amongst friends, not necessarily romantic partners. So, here’s a revised classification of types of non-child-directed baby talk:
- deliberately patronizing or derogatory baby talk,
- baby talk amongst close social ties, including romantic partners,
- pet-directed baby talk,
- elderly-directed baby talk.
Now, the only paper I saw specifically addressing (2) in the context of not just romantic relationships, but to all close relationships, is right here (Bombar and Wittig 1996). The findings are kind of awesome (although I do take issue with some of the methods). First, it says that 68.3% of survey respondents had used baby talk in their current or most recent romantic relationship. Maybe no surprise. But — hang on to your hats — 50.4% of respondents had used baby talk with their friends! Now, both of these numbers are perhaps inflated from a truly representative sample since they excluded participants who didn’t follow directions or had not been in a romantic relationship since the age of 17. Since these authors view baby talk as a type of social bonding, you can imagine that maybe those who haven’t been in a relationship for longer periods would be less likely to use baby talk. But I doubt these figures are too inflated. In other words, lots of people talk baby to their friends.
A deeper look into the findings though reveals that in fact though, it’s not that common. That is, not nearly as common as my sister and her friends. The paper doesn’t have information about the frequency of baby talk to friends, but it does have some info on frequency among romantic partners: between one-third and one-half of the times partners had contact with each other, they used baby talk. But usually, that use was just an utterance, if that. I’m guessing it’s much lower for non-partners. The baby talk I’m talking about can span entire subject matters, as you can see with Exhibit A.
Regardless of its frequency, these findings mean baby talk can function as an in-group phenomenon, similar in scope of group to inside jokes. But language nerds, there’s reason to flag this behavior as a potential trend. First, most of the people who I know who use baby talk are the classic innovators or early adopters. As I mentioned a bit ago, adolescent girls are in the vanguard for language change, and lots of my baby talkers are adolescent girls. Second, all change initially sounds affected, and no one can argue that baby talk doesn’t sound affected. Third, amongst the baby talkers I’ve seen, it’s still heavily an in-group phenomenon, but unlike the participants in the Bombar and Littig study, they’re not afraid to baby talk around — but not to — people who they’re not close.
Realistically then, what am I suggesting the fate of baby talk will be? It’s heavily stigmatized in mainstream culture, so it’s difficult to imagine it becoming a full-fledged change. That is, I doubt we’ll be the next Poland, where l-vocalization of /ɫ/ (the coda “l” in English, like in fall but not in laugh) is a done deal. So in Poland, the city Łódź is said like the first syllable of wouldja, as in, “Wouldja mind giving me a hand?”
The only thing that I really feel comfortable about saying about the future baby talk is that it could gain in prominence as an in-group phenomenon. But the in-group might still be pretty small. Still, it seems to fill the apparent need to differentiate between friends and “cwose” friends. As an added bonus, baby talk is available in not just speech, but also in witing.
If you or anyone you know uses baby talk, or if you’ve seen it around, please let me know about it. Like I said, I’m curious to see if it’s a trend.