Definition and Examples of Baby Talk or Caregiver Speech

Woman feeding a baby in a high chair

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Baby talk refers to the simple language forms used by young children, or the modified form of speech often used by adults with young children. Also known as motherese or caregiver speech. "Early research talked of motherese," notes Jean Aitchison. "This left out fathers and friends, so caretaker speech became the fashionable term, later amended to caregiver speech, and in academic publications, to CDS 'child-directed speech'"

Baby Talk in Academics

It might seem surprising, but academicians, anthropologists, and linguists have commented on and explained baby talk, as the following excerpts show.

Sara Thorne

"'Baby words' like doggie or moo-cow do not help a child to learn language more efficiently. The reduplication of sounds in words like baba and dada, on the other hand, does enable babies to communicate because the words are easy to say." –Mastering Advanced English Language, 2008

J. Madeleine Nash

"When speaking to babies, Stanford University psychologist Anne Fernald has found, mothers and fathers from many cultures change their speech patterns in the same peculiar ways. 'They put their faces very close to the child,' she reports. 'They use shorter utterances, and they speak in an unusually melodious fashion.'" –"Fertile Minds," 1997

Charles A. Ferguson

"[T]he reduplication in baby talk is generally separate and unrelated to the use in the normal language. Reduplication can probably be regarded as a feature of baby talk throughout the world." –"Baby Talk in Six Languages," 1996

Jean Aitchison

"Caregiver speech can be odd. Some parents are more concerned with truth than with language. The ill-formed 'Daddy hat on' might meet with approval, 'Yes, that's right,' if daddy was wearing a hat. But the well-formed 'Daddy's got a hat on' might meet with disapproval, 'No, that's wrong,' if daddy wasn't wearing a hat. You might expect children to grow up telling the truth, but speaking ungrammatically, as some early researchers pointed out. In fact, the opposite happens." –The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words, 1997

Lawrence Balter

"Linguists who have studied the structure of baby talk words have pointed out that there are some typical sound change rules that relate the baby talk word to its adult equivalent. For instance, reduction of the word to a shorter form is common, as is reduplication of the short form, hence, words such as 'din din' and 'bye bye.' It is not clear, however, how some baby talk words were derived: no simple rule explains how rabbits turned into bunnies.
"Although there is a traditional baby talk vocabulary, almost any word in English can be turned into a baby talk word by the addition of a diminutive ending, '-ie': foot becomes 'footie,' shirt becomes 'shirtie,' and so forth. These diminutive endings convey affectionate as well as size connotations." –Parenthood in America., 2000

Debra L. Roter and Judith A. Hall

"Caporael (1981) focused on the use of displaced baby talk to the institutionalized elderly. Baby talk is a simplified speech pattern with distinctive paralinguistic features of high pitch and exaggerated intonation contour that is usually associated with speech to young children. More than 22% of speech to residents in one nursing home was identified as baby talk. Further, even talk from caregivers to the elderly that was not identified as baby talk was more likely to be judged as directed toward a child than was talk between caregivers. The investigators concluded that this phenomenon is widespread and that baby talk directed toward elderly adults was not a result of fine tuning of speech to individual needs or characteristics of a particular patient, but rather a function of social stereotyping of the elderly." –Doctors Talking With Patients/Patients Talking With Doctors, 2006

Baby Talk in Literature and Popular Culture

Authors have incorporated baby talk into their books, and TV show characters have even discussed baby talk. Read on for examples from a 1918 novel and a modern TV program.

Eloise Robinson and John Redhead Froome, Jr.

"As I mounted the porch steps I could hear Miss Althea's voice through the open window. She was apparently, I regret to say, speaking to Mabel, for her words had a soft, cooing sound and were such that, were it not for the sake of veracity, I should be inclined to omit them.

"'Is muvver's 'ittle cutey takin' its 'ittle beauty nap after its din-din? Did it like its din-din? Good din-din with chicken in it for 'ittle cutey baby! That's right, take its 'ittle beauty nap till its muvver turns down. She won't be long--won't be long! Muvver's 'ittle sleepin' beauty, 'ittle cutey beauty!'

"There was more of the same or a similar, variety to which my decisive ring at the door-bell put a hasty end." –"Dead Dog," 1918

Topher Grace (as Eric)

"You know, mom, there comes an age in a boy's life when the baby talk stops working. Yeah, when it does, it just gives a boy the urge to kill." –That '70s Show, 2006

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Baby Talk or Caregiver Speech." ThoughtCo, Jul. 19, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 19). Definition and Examples of Baby Talk or Caregiver Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Baby Talk or Caregiver Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).