Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tower of Babe-l

Not a great pun. Not much of a pun at all. But you'll forgive me I hope - as the recent birth of my niece has me thinking about baby-talk. and a recent correspondence with my good friend Daniel had me thinking about language development. In that exchange Daniel suggested that "the confounding of language at the Tower of Babel wasn't thorough enough" (I think he might have been referring to my tiresome and confusing answer to a very interesting question). But even just the name of the tower has caused plenty of confusion.

People like to credit 'babel' with the origins of the word babble. At first it sounds good - supportable by orthography, phonology, semantics (including connotation and denotation) mythology . . . and let's pause on that. The connection is likely a myth. The name can be traced so easily to the Akkadian bab (gate) + ilu (god) that we pretty easily have to abandon the echoic origin of the place name - which leaves us with the question of the origin of babble.

Is it still possible that babble came from Babel? well of course it is. But if we look carefully we find other more likely sources. Babel's synonymy with cacophony dates to the mid 1500s while babble's synonymy with blather goes back to the early 1400s - and other very similar forms can be attested as far back as the thirteenth century - and in several languages.

It's no secret to students who paid attention in school that barbarian comes from similar origins. Meaning strange or foreign and probably imitating language sounds. The alternation of /r/ and /l/ makes perfect sense as they're both coronal liquids. And the low back vowel /a/ as in father is an easy lax sound. Can we predict another word used to mimic "meaningless" or indiscriminate language? How about blab? blablablah? The already mentioned blather - blare (using both /l/ and /r/) - blatant (from spencer's faerie queen - the blatant beast had a thousand tongues and used them all carelessly - probably symbolic of the ignorant masses) - these are all tellingly similar.

So is a baby likely to make these types of sounds? Well let's look backwards at this question. Are we likely to hear these sounds in a baby's babble? Let's not forget the origins of baby - probably echoic of what we hear as baby talk - and what sound do we ourselves make when imitating a baby's burp or belch? Or better yet what sound do we make when reacting to the mess a baby leaves on our shoulder? There might be no official spelling for it but we've probably seen it in several cartoons or other written dialogues - bleah.

So here's a question i'd love for you the dear reader to answer: What words can remember pronouncing incorrectly when you were a child? Or a word that a younger sibling cousin niece or nephew mispronounced?

Instead of patient i said pedatient until I was about 4 years old.

Instead of until my sister (who just had the baby of her own) said ultin.

Your feedback will fascinate me.


  1. my 'god nephew' said pineel with tonic stress on second sylable, instead of pinwheel. this persisted for longer than many of his mispronunciations.

  2. Marcy said bathing "supe," "stubtitute" teacher, and I was "Dang-l."

  3. My daughter mispronounces so many words it's hard to think of them for listing! She says lellow for yellow, hamgurber for hamburger, and even mispronounces her good friend Ezell's name as Mizell. That's our little genius!

  4. I read a wider variety of words than I spoke I heard, so I often had no idea how to pronounce some words. I still get that now sometimes.

    The only one I can remember from childhood was gnomes from Enid Blyton books. I pronounced them with the g, ie g-nome-ies.

  5. Ah yes. The spelling pronunciation. Garrison Kiellor tells the story of being a reader and thinking that 'Egyptian' was ee-gip-teean (instead of ijipshen).

    (Sorry about the lame phonetic transcriptions. I'm stuck on MS Explorer and it doesn't work well with IPA. Use Firefox people. Or even Opera.)

  6. until he was four, my son said "yew nork" for new york.

    he also made up a word, "yesternight," and used it confidently, though no one else did.

    as children who loved to read, my sister and i thought there was a verb "misle," to deceive, pronounced (MY-zul) and that the past tense was misled (MY-zuld)

  7. Ha! I love (MY-zuld). I've always thought it would make a great word. It sounds like a cousin of embezzled. I hope I'm alive long enough to see it enter general usage.

  8. Genesis 11:7-9

  9. My daughter said "bikelo" (with the stress on the ,first syllable) until she was eleven or twelve. We never corrected her because we thought it was kind of cute. Then one day I asked her if she was going out somewhere on her "bikelo" and she gave me a withering look. "It's bicycle" she informed me, as if I were an idiot and she'd never used the word "bikelo" in her life.
    She also said "hostipal" instead of "hospital" until she was nine or ten.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.