Baby talk, part 2

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Two days ago, I was sitting in a Panera around lunch time.  Next to me was a mother with two young daughters.  One of them looked to be about four years old, and the other about one and a half year old.

The girls were both well behaved, and I enjoyed their company for more than an hour.  Without intentionally eavesdropping, I could not but overhear what they were talking about.  After half an hour, I started to become amused by the younger daughter's speech, because it consisted entirely of the following three words:

1. no! — falling intonation

2. what? — rising intonation

3. why!? — half-falling then half-rising, sounding somewhat plaintive and querulous

After about three quarters of an hour of this remarkable performance (the toddler [she was in a high chair] must have pronounced each of her three words about thirty times by then — without much variation in their utterance), I walked over to the mother and amiably introduced myself, "I'm a linguist and couldn't help but notice that your little daughter's entire vocabulary consists of 'no!', 'what?', and 'why!?'".

"I know," she replied with a smile.  "She really wants to understand what's going on."

Judging from the videos of expressive babbling and prattling by preverbal children we've seen in recent years, demonstrative intonations are mastered before words are acquired to match them with.  In the case of the little girl next to me at Panera two days ago, that exquisite command of modulation is carried over into the incipient verbal stage, but fitting the two parts of articulation together in a satisfactorily meaningful way requires augmenting the vocabulary beyond two or three basic items.


"Baby talk" (12/21/10)

"The babbling phase: ranting toddler speaks out" (9/2/10)

"Ask LL: parents' beliefs or infants' abilities?" (10/29/09)


  1. bks said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

    I had a different experience recently. A toddler in a stroller, outside in a public area, was making many noises (not crying, not whining) trying to interact with his mother, who ignored him for ten minutes while playing with her phone. I wanted to tell her to talk to the child, but my upbringing makes it impossible to confront a stranger in that manner. (I didn't think to pretend to be a linguist doing field work.)

  2. Margaret Wilson said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 12:14 am

    bks, you have no idea what that mother's life is like. It's possible the toddler keeps up that performance 16 hours a day, and the mother is taking a much-needed sanity break. It's possible she just got a text back from the plumber and is prioritizing the family having a functioning toilet. It's possible the toddler spent the last 45 minutes screaming because his mother brought the blue sippy cup and not the yellow one, and he's finally stopped and she needs a little mom-to-mom therapy before she can go back to cheery parenting. It's a good thing your upbringing made it impossible for you to confront her. Mansplaining at the moment would have been a bad move.

  3. Alexandra England said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 1:06 am

    Hi Margaret, I agree with your point about not assuming to know the mother's circumstances and the related possible inappropriateness of an under-informed intervention. I do also think though, that bks didn't give us any reason to think this perspective comes from a man who would necessarily be mansplaining: bks could also be a mother, or even if bks is a man, may still have primary parenting experience and already know firsthand the kind of stress involved.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 2:55 am

    None of us have any "idea what that mother's life is like", but bks's comment raises real concerns in me. Many (most ?) of today's pre-teens, teenagers, those in their twenties and thirties, now seem to regard their mobile telephone as an extension of themself. It goes with them everywhere — to bed, to the loo, to restaurants, to the bathroom — and they seem incapable of being separated from it, or ceasing interacting with it, for more than a few seconds. If this has now progressed to the point where exchanging SMS messages with her peers is more important to a mother than attending to the needs of her child, then I for one fear for the generation that is now being raised.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 6:36 am

    Hey, the "communicator" is on people's clothes in Star Trek, and taking it off is considered a sure sign that something has gone horribly wrong. If Star Trek is a consequence of being reachable all the time, I think I'll take it…

  6. Haamu said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 7:02 am

    Margaret, you had me — right up until "mansplaining." Having just made a great case against non-that-person-splaining, I think you lost a little focus there.

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 7:22 am

    I think that the Star Trek device is analogous to 'dumb' cell phones (it pre-dates them!), not smartphones. I loathe smartphones. As Philip noted, young people (and some older people) seem to have made it indispendable to themselves, having it and using it everywhere, and, incomprehensibly, it seems to have become for them a substitute for a real computer. The changes that ordinary cell phones are wreaking in terms of expectations are bad enough.

    More immediately troubling is insluting comment by 'Margaret Wilson', saying that we can't judge that mother because we 'have no idea what [her] life is like' and a man is not capable of judging anyway (there's no other sense in which the word 'mansplaining' could be taken here). It's not hard to see how that argument would never be accepted with genders reversed. Probably here she is right but only accidentally so.

    I don't believe the combination of the two issues – neglectful parenting caused by smartphones – is a big deal itself; it sound rather more like one of those complaints the older generations often has about young people these days. Give the high priority normal parents always place on their children, anything serious enough to cause their neglect would be serious even without it.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 7:31 am

    Had I seen Haamu's simultaneous post I would have noted it – yes, it looked like she had a good argument, until that word revealed it.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    @Alexandra. If someone's name is in red, it's a clickable link. Click "bks" and you get a page BKS's full name, which is a distinctly male name.

  10. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    The other day on the Metro a man in his twenties boarded, pushing a little girl (10 months or 12 months) in a or a year in a baby stroller. He sat down with his daughter facing him and immediately pulled out his phone. It really bothered me. After a minute or two she started babbling. He put the phone away and smiled at her, and started playing with her – letting her grab his fingers, handing her a little stufffed toy, tickling her feet. I can't describe how relieved it made me feel.

  11. NSBK said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    Kids these days will truly never have the quality of life that existed back in the good old days.

    See also:

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

    I went to a gathering this weekend that included birthday cake and gifts for a two-year-old girl who is just beginning to make short sentences and who has a limited vocabulary. She has been fascinated with newborn twins whom she sees occasionally, so one of her gifts was a small, soft-body baby doll. She only said "baby" when she talked about the doll, but there were many different intonations.

    First, there was the reverent, breathy "baby" when the wrapping paper came off. There was the satisfied, possessive "baby" when it was in her arms after being freed from its box and plastic shackles. There was the declarative "baby" when she was playing with the baby or showing it off. After she let her grandmother hold the doll, there was the tearful, outstretched arms cry for "baby" when she desperately wanted it back. There was the questioning "baby" when she couldn't find the doll but hadn't yet panicked. There was a softer "baby" when the doll went in the cradle and was covered with a blanket. We didn't hear any angry, admonishing "baby" rants, but they may come eventually.

    It makes sense to me that children learn and can express with intonation before they have words, since they are probably deciphering intonation clues from adults earlier than they understand adult words. Does intonation understanding precede understanding facial expressions, or do infants develop decoding of both simultaneously?

  13. ajay said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    He put the phone away and smiled at her, and started playing with her – letting her grab his fingers, handing her a little stuffed toy, tickling her feet. I can't describe how relieved it made me feel.

    Ah, but, as I'm sure Margaret would explain, you have no idea what that father's life is like. He could have been on his way to roast and eat that baby for dinner and just desperate to keep her from attracting the attention of potential witnesses. It's a pity your upbringing kept you from intervening. (Womantervening?)

  14. Alexandra England said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 6:29 am

    @Ellen K.

    Thank you :)

  15. Kaleberg said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

    I think there is too much helicopter parenting. If the child wasn't in serious danger or distress let mom relax talking to a friend, reading a book or upping a few levels in Diner Dash or its modern equivalent. Anyone who has dealt with a newborn knows that it takes a while for them to learn how to exist on their own, and leaving them alone is an important part of teaching that.

    As for intonation, consider Groot, the Marvel character. It's pretty impressive what can be done with "I am Groot."

  16. Ed Rorie said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 7:05 am

    I count 15 comments so far. 14 are about phones, "mansplaining," and/or disgraceful parenting you see in public these days. One very interesting comment on topic. Irrelevant peeving is inevitable in comments on the websites maintained by the likes of Amazon and CNN, but disheartening on Language Log. (By the way, my smartphone is much more useful in a practical way than the first computer I bought in 1986. If you loathe it, please look away.)

  17. Margaret Wilson said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    Despite being referred to in the third person — and somehow being more insulting than bks was being towards that mother or than subsequent commenters have been towards me — I stand by my use of the word "mansplaining."

    The word was coined precisely because it is a real phenomenon: Overwhelmingly it is men who feel licensed to explain things to people (overwhelmingly women) who manifestly have more expertise on the topic. Yes, it's hard to see how the argument would be accepted if the genders were reversed, because by and large women don't do that to men.

    But by all means, let's continue to spin hypotheticals in which the person with the male name who feels a moral obligation to chide mothers based on knowing a few psycholinguistic factoids *might* really be a woman who has been through long-haul primary-care-taking.

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