Monday, March 26, 2007

Gagaga and Wawawawa

Disclaimer: I'm talking about pronunciation in this essay, not spelling. So, for the purposes of reading this remember that pronunciation and spelling are not the same thing. Although garbage, for example, is spelled with an 'e' at the end, it does not end in an 'e' for pronunciation. That 'e' is 'silent' - thus for pronunciation purposes, the word ends with the 'dg' sound. Similarly, while the word 'friend' is spelled with two vowels 'ie', it's only pronounced with one. Due to font limitations of the web, I'm not able to give the real sounds - just an approximation.

Gagaga and Wawawawa

First words are a wonderful thing. That is, of course, if you can understand them. The following are words that Tommy used when he was about 20 months. Take a guess at what they could be:

wawawawa (my all time favorite!)

Stumped? So were most of our friends and relatives!

aing = orange
babo = backhoe
beh = bread
gagaga = garbage truck
gye-gye = bye-bye
haka = sock
han = hand
kishi = fishie
ma-ah = melon
maemae = banana
mih = mitten
shishi = lotion
wawawawa = helicopter

How on earth did he get so far from the adult pronunciation? Believe it or not, almost all of his pronunciations made sense, linguistically speaking. Tommy was very consistent, applying very regular rules to his pronunciation. The only problem is, by the time he got done applying all the rules, the words themselves bore very little resemblance to their adult counterparts. Our first born is lucky that his mom is a linguist, and was able to decode all things he was doing to words.

Really there were two things going on with his pronunciation. First, he had a set of sounds that he couldn't pronounce – typically late sounds like 's' and 'l' and 'f' were mispronounced. Instead of using those sounds, he substituted other sounds that he could do so 'k' for 'f', 'h' for 's' and so on. Despite these substitutions, the sounds he could pronounce were very typical for a two year old. He could pronounce all of the sounds that 2 year olds can typically use: /b, p, m, n, w and h/. He even had most of the sounds that are often acquired between the ages of 2 and 4 such as /d, t, k, g, "ng"/. True he had a hard time with most of the sounds that are generally acquired after age three – things like /f, y, r, l, s, z, "ch", "dg", v/ (although he did have "sh", which is often a later sound). But difficulties with these sounds is very typical and we're used to that in children's speech. After all we can all understand Tweety Bird's "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" or Elmer Fudd's "wascally wabbit".

Tommy was so very difficult to understand not because of his sound substitutions but because he altered the sequences of sound, or the 'shape,' of his words. He preferred for his words to end in a vowel, so he omitted the consonants at the ends of syllables and words. Or, if they didn't end in a vowel, he added one ('kishie' is an example of this). He couldn't pronounce two consonants that occurred in a row, so he just deleted one; 'bread' became 'beh' and 'hand' became 'han'. He often didn't pronounce syllables that weren't stressed, especially if they occurred at the beginnings of words. So, those syllalbes just disappeared as the first syllable of 'banana' (maemae) or the second syllable of 'mitten' (mih).

But he did more than that just delete and add. He also preferred for the sounds in his words to 'match', so he'd replace one sound with another from the same word to make all the consonants the same. So, 'backhoe' with a 'b' and a 'k' became 'baboe'. For 'lotion' with it's difficult to pronounce initial 'l', he took 'sh' from the second syllable and used it instead, giving us 'shishi'.

The result of all of this was that his words had a very nice, regular structure for every syllable: Consonant-Vowel (CV), where often (but not always) the same consonants were used in 2 and 3 syllable words (CVCV).

Interestingly, the structure he created for words (CVCV) is one of the most common structures for words across the world's languages. Many language such as Spanish, Italian, Japanese or Hawaiian have very few (if any) words that end in consonants. English and the other Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, etc.) are more unusual in that our words tend to be short, but very complex. In Spanish, a 'friend' is amigo – where amigo has a vowel - consonant+vowel - consonant+vowel structure (VCVCV). Compare that with English friend - a short word with two consonants at the beginning and two more at the end (CCVCC)!

What Tommy did with his pronunciation was very typical for a child under 2. He created a template for words (CVCV primarily) that made the words easier to pronounce. This tendency to simplify is so common that a lot 'baby talk' or baby words reflect this tendency for children to simplify both sounds and word structure. Words such as 'wawa' for water, or 'bubba' or 'sissy' for brother and sister are examples of this. And it's probably not just chance that words for 'mother' and 'father' across the world's languages are usually CVCV with the early acquired consonants and vowels: mama, amma, ummah, anaana, dada, papa, ataata, tata, etc. We want our names to be things our kids can pronounce! And thus, even when we have a difficult to pronounce word such as 'mother' (the 'th' sound is learned quite late), we substitute other words such as mommy or momma that our children can pronounce.

So, in terms of pronunciation rules across languages, Tommy's pronunciations weren't all that weird. It was just the sheer volume of pronunciation changes that stymied most listeners. Can't pronounce garbage truck? Well, just delete the 'r's that you can pronounce(so 'garbage truck' would become 'gabage tuck'). Then delete the consonants at the end of 'truck' and 'garbage' since we don't like those either (yielding 'gaba tuh'). Then make all the consonants (and vowels) in the word the same, and voila: Garbage truck has become gagaga! It all makes perfect sense, in its own little world.


Laurie said...

Hi! I just found your blog by following the link from a post you made in the mothering.commune website. Very interesting posts. My one-year old just started using "ba" for ball. Such an interesting process.

Wabash Cannonball said...

I have a question - what about when a child doesn't enunciate a consonant sound but instead uses a sort of "soundalike placeholder" for the word? My 16 month old hums "mm-mm" for "Thank-you" after we give him something in the same intonation we as adults use for Thank You. He also hums it when he gives US something! Do you know what process this is?


PsychoLinguist said...

Using placeholders is pretty common. Often children do it for words that they can't quite pronounce or haven't figured out. They often start with the intonation (I suspect that your son is singing "thank you" even as he's saying "mm-mm"), and then develop the sounds for the words later.

So, our 34 month old will do this for song lyrics that she hasn't quite gotten.

I'm not a speech pathologist, but I wouldn't worry unless the child is over 18 months and does this with ALL words (i.e. doesn't have any clear words).