22 January 2008

From the Mouth of Babes

Last Friday, the topic of my class was about the International Phonetic Alphabet. I basically discussed what that was, and how it was universal. For the fifty minutes that was alloted, I was only able to discuss the regular consonant chart. That means that I will discuss the vowels and the consonants that are "weird" next time.

I am not a phonetician, nor a phonologist. I just do not do research in sound. It's not that I have something against those topics, but I just do not find it fascinating enough to do research on it. Although if a professor told me that he wants me on his team, if the professor is a phonetician or a phonologist, I might accept, but if I were the Principal Investigator, I wouldn't do research on sound.

Anyway, looking back, I apparently enjoyed discussing this section of the class. As long as I say something that is correct, then that is good. And the enjoyable thing is, I was able to initiate a class discussion even on a topic that may be inherently boring.

Yes, I acknowledge that the material for my class is inherently boring. Not that it is a defect of the class, but plenty of people take language for granted, that they do not think that it is a topic worthy of study.

Anyway, I started by asking them what baby talk sounds like. This was in order to explain the difference between the different consonants. There are consonants that are have a stop of airflow. There are the nasals, which release the airflow through the nasal cavity, and there are the fricatives, which are produced by making a narrow constriction somewhere in the oral cavity.

Now I asked them what were the sounds that are used for baby talk. And why babies usually go babababababa or mamamamamama instead of sasasasasasa or fafafafafafa. The explanation behind this is because stop consonants are easier to produce than fricative consonants. During the early years of the child, when he is still learning how to control his speech organs, the easiest thing a child can do is to control opening and closing his mouth. That is why the child's first words are mama or dada, because these simply involve opening and closing one's mouth. The fricatives on the other hand involve a synchronized movement, and one has to master one's speech organs first, before one can make a narrow constriction that is perfect for the fricative sounds. Thus, for that reason, they appear late in the child's inventory of sounds.

Now, as food for thought, that may be the reason why plenty of the world's languages have mama or dada as pet names for parents.

(The Isaiah Wall, from my United Nations Series)


  1. I wish you were around here: I suck at phonetics! I never really learned properly and it's one aspect of teaching I hate.

    But the way you present it, it sounds interesting!

  2. Zhu,

    It is interesting. When I took a graduate course in Phonetics a year ago, I found it interesting, but I just don't see myself doing research in it. Maybe, if I collaborate with someone else, possibly, but not by myself.