An introduction to baby talk in the Maghreb

An introduction to baby talk in the Maghreb

This presentation provides an introduction to the baby talk in the Maghreb, including its major features such as phonetics/phonology, morphology, syntax, and etymology of baby-talk terms.

The data is available at:


Evgeniya Gutova

June 24, 2015


  1. Baby Talk in the Maghreb and beyond Evgeniya Gutova

  2. Definition • BT (baby-talk)/CDS (child-directed speech) = special speech register

    used by adults when addressing babies (typically 0 to 3-5 years old). • Ferguson 1964: “BT is a linguistic subsystem regarded by a speech community as being primarily appropriate for talking to young children; it consists of intonational features, patterned modifications of normal language, and a special set of lexical items”. • This presentation: focus on the lexical items.
  3. Questions (1) • Phonetics/phonology; use of special phonemes; • Word

    structure; • Morphology and syntax; • Semantics (which meanings are expressed); • Origin/etymology of BT terms.
  4. Questions (2) • Continuity & change: How stable & conventionalized?

    Differences: regional; urban & rural; Arabic & Berber. • Cf. other speech registers: animal calls, foreigner talk. Street vendors’ screams: defective morphologically; have no etymology or are simplifications of standard words (e.g. uuuu, uuuu < lḥut ‘fish’). • Why teaching BT, which is not part of adult speech? • BT in the Maghreb in wider typological perspective.
  5. Sources • Ethnographic data: a) in situ (North Morocco); b)

    delocalized; • Questionnaire/elicitation: a) in situ; b) delocalized; (Morocco, Algeria, Libya); • Literature: 1) ethnographic data; 2) elicitation; 3) unspecified.
  6. Authors • Morocco: James Bynon, Georges Colin, Dominique Caubet, Leila

    Abu-Shams; • Egyptian Arabic: Manfred Woidich, aš-Širbini (1665); • Siwi Berber (Egypt): Lameen Souag (unpublished); • Syrian Arabic: Charles Ferguson (1956; 1964); • Arabic (various, Middle East): Jérôme Lentin (2012).
  7. BT Database A collection of baby-talk words with a

    focus on North Africa (Arabic and Berber).
  8. Phonetics • Frequent occurrence of bilabials (b, ḅ, m, ṃ),

    but also back consonants (k, x, q, ḥ, ɛ). • Special phonemes, e.g. [p], Riff pappa (Kabyle pʷappʷa) ‘bread’; [v/ʙ], mbuvva ‘water’; clicks, e.g. ȻȻ ‘horse’; unfricativized (plosive) [b] in Kabyle baɛɛa ‘sheep; meat’ (usually b > ḇ); plosive [d] in Kabyle daddas ‘brother’ (usually d > ḏ). • Sound symbolism e.g. x in xixxi ‘dirty’.
  9. Word Structure • Reduplication, gemination of C2: CVCCV (Mor. Ar.)

    ninni ‘sleep’, mimmi ‘eat’, titti ‘sit’, fuffu ‘fire’, diddi ‘pain’. This process is also found in: • Animal calls: šašša ‘stop’, rarra ‘go’ (to a donkey); • Adult speech in ironic context, e.g. Kabyle nickname for France, Faffa (adult: Fṛansa); • Group of 3+ consonants: fff ‘fire, hot’, kxx ‘dirty’, tššš ‘it burns’, šššttt ‘silence!’
  10. Morphology • Often defective (no morphological markers), but not always;

    • Some verbs can be conjugated; • Some nouns accept F and PL markers.
  11. Verbal Morphology • Most verbs: imperative only, e.g. Kabyle daddaš

    ‘walk’. • Some verbs can be conjugated, e.g. xxuš ‘to sleep’: • SG: 1. xxušš-eɣ; 2. ṯe-xxušš-eḏ; 3M ye-xxuš; 3F ṯe-xxuš;
 PL: 1. ne-xxuš; 2. ṯe-xxuš-em(t); 3. xxuš-en(t). • IMPRF 1. țț-xuššu-ɣ; 2. ṯe-țț-xuššu-ḏ; 3MSG ye-țț-xuššu; • IMP.IMPRF SG țț-xuššu; MPL țț-xuššu-t; FPL țț-xuššu-mt.
  12. Other v:conj in Kabyle • ṭaṭṭeḥ ‘to hit’, 3MSG i-ṭaṭṭeḥ;

    • mmux ‘to die’, 3MSG i-mmux (cf. Riff i-bbux); • bbaḥ ‘to be nice’, 3MSG i-bbaḥ; • ffuḥ ‘to be bad’, 3MSG i-ffuḥ; • mmaḥ ‘to kiss’, 3MSG i-mmaḥ; • qaqqaḥ ‘to poo’ (also can be used as a noun).
  13. Nominal Morphology • Most nouns do not accept F and

    PL markers; • Some nouns that accept F and PL markers: • qaqqaḥ ‘poo’ (n, coll.), ta-qaqqaḥ-t (F/SG/unit), ti-qaqqaḥ-in (F.PL); • beɛɛu ‘insect’ (possible PL with older children: yi-beɛɛu-ten).
  14. Nominal suffixes • Use of suffix -š (esp. Kabyle, but

    also Riff; often optional): qaqqa(š) ‘fruit’, diddi(š) ‘pain’, xixxi(š) ‘dirty’, mummu(š) ‘baby’ or ‘stranger’. More frequent in Berber, but also occurs in Morrocan Arabic: kekɛu(š) ‘cock’, dadduš ‘walk’. 
 - Is it a diminutive suffix? But not everywhere? - Does it have a Latin origin (cf. Galand-Pernet)? • Use of 3SG poss. pron. with kinship terms (Berber & Ar.): Riff papas ‘father’, mamas ‘mother’, Kabyle nannas ‘sister’, daddas ‘brother’, Arabic xalt-u ‘maternal aunt’. BT kinship terms can be used in adult speech: Kabyle exclamation a mamma! ‘My God!’
  15. Syntax • Ambiguous “part of speech”: noun + verb +

    adjective + interjection: fuffu ‘fire, it burns, (it is) hot, be careful, watch out!’ • Contextual meaning (meaning depends on context and intonation): the terms for ‘food’, ‘bread’, and ‘meat’ pronounced with the interrogation tone can be used to ask the baby if it is hungry. • Common to combine two BT terms, e.g. Eg. Ar. hamm el-mam ‘eat food!’
  16. Origin Often no relation with the adult language. Onomatopoeia, often

    shared between Arabic & Berber: • animal sound: hawhaw ‘dog’, baɛɛa ‘sheep’, tiwtiw ‘birds’, muh ‘cow’; • animal calls: šašša ‘donkey’, bešš/bešbeš ‘cat’; • sound of an object: ɛanɛan/titit ‘car’; • other: (n)geɣɣa ‘smile, cute’, mnimni, ham ‘eat’, bessa ‘pipi’, aḥḥ ‘pain’, mmaḥ(a) ‘kiss’. Expressive/symbolic: xixxi ‘dirty’, kexx ‘dirty, don't touch!’
  17. BT < adult (Kabyle) • xuxxu ‘milk’ < iɣi/aɣu; •

    daddaš ‘walk’ < ddu; • qimmaš ‘sit’ < qqim; • baεbuṭ ‘belly’ < aεebbuḍ; • tittus ‘hand’ < afettus (a variant of afus); • fuffu ‘fire’ < archaic word for ‘fire’: afa, tafat, tifawt.
  18. BT < adult (Mor. Ar.) • Diminutive: šṭēḥa ‘dance’ <

    štaḥ; • Truncation: bida < zbida (DIM) < zebda ‘butter’; • F suffix: ɛannaga ‘hug’ < ɛanneg; • Gemination: simimmi ‘butter’ < smen.
  19. Adult < BT? (Kabyle) • BT lullu ‘toy’, adult alelluš

    ‘little unimportant object’; • BT mummuš, adult amummuš ‘baby’ (Imẓalen); • BT maḥa ‘a kiss’, adult tamaḥatt ‘a kiss’ (Zmenzer); • BT bba ‘to kiss’, adult tabbat ‘a kiss’ (Imẓalen); • BT qaqqa(š) ‘fruit, sweets’, adult taqaqqašt, PL tiqaqqašin ‘tasty things’.
  20. Loanwords Loanwords (with a slight change of meaning): • bravo

    ‘good’, but also ‘to clap’ (< French); cf. bravo/brawa in Eg. Arabic (< Italian via Turkish) • baybay ‘to say/wave good-bye or hello’ (< English)
  21. Loans from Berber Examples from Moroccan Arabic (Caubet): • xēxe,

    kexxa ‘dirty’ < xxa ‘be bad’, ixxan ‘excrements’; • dadduš ‘walk’ < ddu ‘walk’; • fff, fuffu ‘fire, hot’ < afa ‘fire’; • diddi ‘pain’ < adeddi ‘pain’.
  22. Arabic or Berber? • Many items: common for Arabic and

    Berber, but directionality of borrowing is not easy to determine, e.g. beɛɛu ‘ogre’, mummu ‘baby’, šišši ‘meat’, tša ‘hot’, titti ‘sit’, etc.
  23. Mediterranean • mbuwa ‘water’ < Latin BT bua ‘drink’; •

    babba ‘bread’ < pāpa, pappa ‘food’; • ninni ‘sleep’ < naenia ‘lullaby’; • nunnu ‘toy’: this root (same as lullu) is found in the Mediterranean ‘little, brilliant object’.
  24. Berber, Arabic, French • titit ‘car’ (Kabyle, Arabic), cf. French

    tutut ? • qaqqaḥ ‘to poo’, cf. French caca ? • minuš ‘cat’ (Kabyle) < French minou ?
  25. Children Talk • 2 to 4 years: 2nd phase of

    BT (“children talk”); • Mix of BT + adult language; • More morphology (when BT terms allow morphology), e.g. Tarifiyt baɛɛ > ibeɛɛšen ‘sheep’; • More relationship with adult language; use of diminutives (e.g. for body parts).
  26. BT in the Maghreb • Semantics: animals, kinship, body (parts),

    bodily functions, actions, food, objects, basic qualities. • BT terms in the Maghreb exhibit many similarities, but also differences (“unity in diversity”). • Large overlap between BT among Arabic and Berber speakers, but also (regional) differences.
  27. BT in the Maghreb • Variation: regional, urban vs. rural,

    Berber vs. Ar.: some Riff terms differ from Mor. Ar., but are like Kabyle, e.g. xxuš ‘sleep’, qaqqaḥ ‘dirt, poop’; mummu(š) means ‘stranger’ rather than ‘baby’. • BT in the Maghreb is stable and conventionalized, but there are also some changes. • Related to BT (but goes beyond BT lexemes):
 1) Gender Switch; 2) Scolding; 3) Role Switch.
  28. Gender Switch • GS: children are addressed in the opposite

 i.e. boys as girls (M > F) and girls as boys (F > M). 
 Reported by Ferguson, Caubet, Repp, Woidich. • Reasons: endearment? protection from evil spirits? 
 Is it more common to address boys in F, or girls in M? • GS is used for endearment in Amharic and mod. Hebrew. In modern Hebrew, girls can be addressed in M form. • GS in French? (Anna Livia. 1997. ‘Disloyal to Masculinity: Linguistic Gender and Liminal Identity in French’).
  29. Gender Switch • Hanna Repp 1996: In the mind of

    Egyptians, there is an underworld which mirrors the ordinary world. Every person in our world has a sibling of the opposite sex in the underworld. These might become jealous and harm a child, and therefore have to be kept in a friendly mood. This can be achieved by speaking directly to them, and, since they are of the opposite sex, gender has to be changed. The goal is to avoid jealousy.
  30. Protection • In Algeria (Arabs & Berbers), boys could be

    dressed as girls (long hair, earrings), but not the other way around. • Protection names: custom of giving “bad/ugly” names to babies in order to avoid the ‘evil eye’ (also in Egypt). • Examples (Kabyle): Lεifa (M/F) < εaf ‘disgust’ (from dialectal Arabic); Akli (M) ‘slave’; Aεrab (M) ‘Arab’. • Scolding/Negative names: not meant as real scolding. Reason: protection or just a way of fondling the child?
  31. Role Switch • RS: children are addressed with (ya) bāba

    ‘(oh) Father’ by their fathers, (ya) mama ‘Mother’ by mothers, ya židda ‘Granny’ by grandmothers. Related to GS, as adults address children according to the sex of the speaker. • Reasons: to tell children what they are expected to say (what one wants to hear from them). • This behavior exists in other language-societies, including Yiddish, where the child is addressed as mamele ‘Mommy’ (but not tatele ‘Daddy’?).
  32. Why BT? • Primary function of BT is not language

    acquisition, but facilitation of communication. • “Learning to speak” does not mean learning the language. • There is continuity between BT and adult speech – not in phonetics and morphology, but at the cognitive and cultural levels, in the child’s social and communicative competence.
  33. Thank you!