Babytalk words across languages

Vivian Cook

There are similarities in the babytalk words that parents use with children in different languages:

“mother”: Mummy (English) mama (Arabic, Swahili, Greek) maman (French) mutti (German), ma (Berber)

All of them have ‘m’ sounds and ‘a’ or ‘u’ vowels. One reason for this has been claimed to be that the easiest speech sounds are made by opening and closing the lips, diverting the air to the nose (‘m’) and using a back vowel with the tongue at the back of the mouth (‘u’ and ‘a’). Parents think that this sound must mean something. So it is not that babowies are saying ‘ma’, it’s that parents give the meaning ‘mother’ to the first sounds babies produce.

“cow”: moocow (English), moo (Swahili), moomoo (Japanese)

“dog”: bow-wow (English), wan wan (Japanese), myow (Arabic), toutou (French), vau vau (Latvian), haw-haw (Arabic), waw-waw (Greek)

On the one hand these try to show the actual sounds, which people obviously hear slightly differently in different parts of the world; on the other they show a universal tendency in baytalk to repeat the same syllable (moomoo) or to repeat it with a different first sound (bow-wow)

“stomach” tummy (English), pompon (Japanese) umbo (Swahili), bumbuls (Latvian)

Why are ‘u’ and ‘m’ sounds so common? Goodness knows.

Now see if you can work out what these babytalk words in various languages might mean. Answers below.

1. kong kong (Chinese)

2. nyannyan (Japanese)

3. kuku (Arabic)

4. dadush (Berber)

5. lalalal (Swahili)

6. shii shii-shii-sura (Japanese)

7. peton (French)

Answers: 1 grandfather, 2 cat, 3 bird' 4 walk, 5 go to sleep, 6 pee, 7 foot

Children's Early Words
Children's Early Word Combinations 
Words in the UK National Curriculum

How children learn words

Words index