A remarkable case of survival, from Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat:

Most languages probably have a few words used especially for addressing babies. However, Siwi seems to have a lot more than I know from English or Arabic (I’ve recorded something like 40). One of these (already noted in Laoust 1931) is mbuwwa “water” (the normal Siwi word is aman). mbuwwa, meaning “water” or “drink”, turns out to be rather widespread: they use it in baby talk in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Malta, Sicily, and probably a few other places for which I haven’t found sources. The remarkable part is that Ferguson managed to track down a historical source for this word. Varro, a Roman grammarian of the first century BC, gives bua as the nursery word for “drink” (presumably to be related to bibere, the adult verb for “drink”.) (Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to find the relevant work online.) If the connection is correct, then this word (possibly along with some others, like pappa for “bread” or “food”) has persisted in Mediterranean baby talk for at least 2000 years, apparently without ever passing into adult speech.

As several commenters point out, 40 isn’t a lot of baby-talk words (SnowLeopard says the Hopi Dictionary Project’s Hopiikwa Lavaytutuveni “lists 80 words of baby-talk Hopi”); SillyBahrainiGirl got excited (“mbuwwa! I am from Bahrain and haven’t heard this word for years!”), giving Lameen his own moment of excitement (“Wow, I didn’t realise mbuwwa went all the way from Morocco to Bahrain. I wonder if it’s used even further east?”); and the estimable bulbul got even more excited: “You have got to be kidding. Papať is the Slovak BT word for ‘to eat’, papa (feminine) means food and now you’re telling me it’s found in the Mediterranean as well? Awesome.” Yet another area of language that deserves more attention than it’s gotten to date.


  1. Slightly OT:
    I remember reading somewhere that bones ‘dice’ and beat it ‘depart in haste, often under duress’ are the only slang items still surviving as slang from Chaucer’s day, never having been either standard or obsolete.

  2. bone from the Pardoner’s Tale seems like a sound example of that. I would not be surprised if it occurs in some ancient language.
    HDAS only has beat it from 1665, but explicitly disclaims use by Shakespeare as meaning the same. It’s also in B.E. Gent.’s 1699 cant dictionary, s.v. hoof it, but then there are loads of entries there that are recognizably modern.
    Coming up with a list or slang survivals seems to depend a lot on how you define your terms.
    Some obscenities are of long standing: always there from Anglo-Saxon times, but never standard.
    Some words have had related colloquial senses over the years, but not quite as firmly fixed. For instance, bull from ‘lie’ to ‘nonsense’ or ‘banter’.
    Some metaphors are of long standing, like hot for ‘sexually aroused’. Some are so obvious that they never go away, like hole for ‘anus’ or thing for ‘genitals’.

  3. Heck, I remember being surprised listening to Jelly Roll Morton’s Smithsonian recordings (1938, supposedly reflecting current practice c. 1908) at how little hardcore obscenity had changed, while many double entendres had lost all meaning (e.g., “shake it like a staving chain”).
    But while I suspect that Chaucer would have little trouble understanding Morton’s “I f*cked that b*tch until her p*ssy stunk,”* I imagine that Varro would be clueless.
    Count me among those who would like to know more about the persistence of baby-talk.
    * Expurgated not because you might be embarrassed, but because I am.

  4. Arfur "50 øre" Crown says

    I don’t want to be accused of prescriptivism, but shouldn’t that be stank? (You should have used an asterisk to cover it up.)
    80 words of baby-talk Hopi Is it reasonable to infer something about their paying more attention to children than we do, or is that just a reverse version of ‘the Eskimos have three million words for snow’?

  5. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    In the essay (linked over there in the comments) by Larry Trask on mama/papa words, he remarks by the way at one point that “papa” is the baby talk word for food in Basque. But the essay itself shows how the same baby talk words can arise in different languages.

  6. There’s the question of what is counted as ‘baby talk’; I’d propose a distinction between ‘baby talk’ – cutesy diminutives of main-language words, like jim-jams for pyjamas and ickle for little – and ‘baby dialect’, where the words seem to be independent of the main-language vocabulary. I think the distinction could be useful, not least because ‘babytalk’ is capable of almost infinite expansion as you can readily ‘babyize’ almost any word. Baby dialect, by contrast, seems to be a formalized, systematic vocabulary.
    I can’t think of much real baby dialect in English, aside from a few words for excretory functions and the like. Czech, by contrast, has distinct words for eating (and for food), sleeping, drinking (and drink), for excretory functions, for injury, and more; few or none are related in any obvious way to Czech itself, and the apparent fact that at least one of these (papat/papa, as in Slovak) reaches all the way to the Med makes me wonder if this vocabulary generally has linguistic roots which are distinct from Czech altogether.
    From the comments in Jabal al-Lughart’s blog, it looks as though the Hopi list of ’80 words of baby-talk’ comprises both ‘baby talk’ and ‘baby dialect’ (as I have tentatively distinguished them).
    Incidentally, in English we do of course have the word ‘pap’ (not baby dialect) for pulpy infant foods. OED has this as coming to us through German rather than through Mediterranean baby dialect, but the suggested root in the Latin pappare seems a likely culprit for the original source of all these words.

  7. Arfur "50 øre" Crown says

    “Baby dialect, by contrast, seems to be a formalized, systematic vocabulary…Czech…Slovak…Hopi…I can’t think of much real baby dialect in English”
    @Outcast: Interesting idea. I think you still need to firm up the distinction a bit, I can’t see why ‘baby-dialect’ should necessarily have a smaller vocabulary than ‘baby-talk’. Will you speculate on why English might not have as many words as the other languages?

  8. “shake it like a staving chain”
    I thought that was “shake it like Stavin Chain” (supposedly the name of a notorious ladies’ man around a century ago), but I suppose at this late date it’s hard to know for sure.
    I’d propose a distinction between ‘baby talk’ – cutesy diminutives of main-language words, like jim-jams for pyjamas and ickle for little – and ‘baby dialect’, where the words seem to be independent of the main-language vocabulary.
    I think that’s an excellent idea.

  9. In Sicilian “bua” is baby-talk for prolonged hurt, ouch, my wee head has been doing bua for two days.

  10. Lugubert says

    I think that one reason for my interest in languages and sufficiently successful career in the translation business is that mother never used baby talk. I learned only adult words and grammar from the very beginning.

  11. I learned only adult words and grammar from the very beginning.
    I’m dubious as to whether the use or avoidence of baby-oriented lexigraphical items would have any impact on future language use: surely, a word is a word is a word. Why should using one lexeme in place of another in a child’s early years – say, jim-jams for pyjamas – affect either language acquisition or later fluency?
    As to grammar… Baby dialect (as defined above) uses ‘adult’ grammar, at least in Czech – it’s a different set of words, not a different way of speaking. So you might ask a child, ‘Chces hamat?’ or agree ‘Nicky hapal!’: hamat and hapat are both baby dialect words, but they are not used in ways which violate standard grammatical conventions. For that matter, even icky, cutesy babytalk seems to usually employ standard grammar – ‘Does iddy-widdy want yummy num-nums den?’ is perfectly ‘adult’ grammar, even if it makes you feel like fwowing up.

  12. It’s interesting that “pappa” is the word for “bread, food” in the Mediterranean. “Mamma” in Japanese is baby-talk for “rice”.

  13. I’m tempted to link “bua” to “booze”, simply because it would tidy up a few wordorigins threads.

  14. Crown: Preterite stunk is a minority usage, but reckoned standard in American English. Other class 3 strong verbs also have this variant use of the participle for the preterite, as in the title of the film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Indeed, in some, like cling and swang, it is now the only standard form: we do not use clang as the past tense of cling, or swang at all.

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