Monday, October 18, 2010

Old High Coochy-Coo

Of those few conlangs that reach a pretty well-developed state (beyond 1500 words or so, a reasonable corpus), a good number will have well-defined formal and literary registers. Part of this is probably yet another lingering influence of Tolkien, though for most people a literary conlang may be the first they encounter. In my own Vaior I created syntax and a good dose of parallel vocabulary for fairly common words used only in the poetic register (raie was the normal word for star, emme poetic), as well as poetic syntax (animate direct objects of perception verbs are in the genitive, not accusative).

One thing I've never seen in a conlang is baby-talk. How different cultures talk to children isn't exactly universal. Some people don't talk directly to children until they have something interesting to say back, without apparently causing developmental problems. But it's a pretty common practice. What I would not have suspected, until I read about it a few days ago, is that it is fairly common for people to use baby talk — or something much like it — when speaking to animals.

A few things are common to baby talk —

  • Reduplication is very common (in my own family, a bottle is either a ba or a baba).

  • Much wider pitch range, and a tendency to stay in higher registers.

  • Simplified grammar (not a surprise).

  • Vocabulary that exists only in the baby-talk register ("binkie" for "blanket"; in Nootka, paapash "eat!" for adult ha'ukw'i).

  • Particular patterns of phonological deformation (not exactly simplification, but nearly so).



The word deformations are most interesting to me, and in Native American languages dovetail with some interesting things that happen in story telling registers. In Cocopa, for example, the onset consonant of stressed syllables is turned into a /v/, while other consonants are fronted. Adult kwanyúk "baby" becomes kanvúk. Cocopa uses a very similar register with animals, with different informants finding the register appropriate for speaking to cats, dogs, horses or even chickens. In this register, every word gets a palatalized lateral fricative, /łʲ/, inserted or substituted into every word.

In Quileute certain prefixes might be used when speaking to people with particular characteristics, /s-/ for a small man, /tł-/ for someone who is cross-eyed. But certain characters in traditional stories also have their language altered in particular ways. Raven prefixes /ʃ-/; Deer prefixes /tłk-/ and turns all sybilants to laterals. Coyote, of course, speaks inappropriately and often in highly distorted ways all over the West.

One of the great things about using formal registers is that it becomes that much easier to be rude and impolite. So I was delighted to read that in Nootka, the word deformation for Raven — /-tʃx-/ inserted after the first syllable of the word — is also used to speak of greedy people. But not to their face.

I'll have to try out some of this in some future project.

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