Baby Talk in America

by Matias Viegener


There are two kinds of baby talk: the talking of babies, of which I will say little, and the baby talk of the rest of us who are not babies. The way infants talk is widely thought to be conditioned primarily by physiology, which determines the basic sounds they are able to make: “ama,” “aba,” “mama,” “papa,” etc. All languages have open vowels and almost all have labial consonants like “M” or “P.” But these primary conditions are profoundly influenced by selective-mirroring—the baby talk that parents talk to their new babies. The selective repetition of baby’s first babblings is affected by parents’ cultural and personal sense of baby talk, the role of baby talk in culture, and the baby’s own initiation into baby talk. The very word “baby” reflects this. In this sense, all baby talk is a hybrid of psychology and culture constructed on the physiological basis of the early sounds of which an infant is capable—sounds which, to us, seem deeply resonant.

Too kina bebetok, toka bebe n toka mama papa.  Bebe maus mek soun. Papa mama tok bebe.  Bebe tok mama papa.

What baby talk encapsulates is the relationship between parents and infants, which is a relationship of dependency. Like all mammals, babies cannot survive without parents; left unattended, without defenses or the capacity to care for themselves, they quickly die. What we call “cuteness” is our genetically programmed response to the defenselessness and dependency of babies. The valence of this dependency is far from simple: psychoanalysts have long pondered whether the mother comes to need the infant as much as the infant needs her. In theorizing the master-slave dialectic, Hegel came to believe that in fact the master is in the ultimate position of weakness: while the slave can take care of himself, the master is utterly dependant on the slave, which informs the dynamic of their feverish bond. This is symbolic of course, as no one would believe a baby could fend for itself. But it may cause us to question who the master is and who the slave is in this relationship, since no one does more for the infant than the parent. 

Baby talk is a corollary of the cute. Both a low-culture category and a psychological mechanism, the cute is the appealing counterpart of the grotesque, the horrible, or the abject, utilizing as they do elements of distortion, metonym, and exaggeration. Unlike these “negative” modalities, the cute seeks to comfort and disarm us, presenting, in a sense, a safe version of the body of the other. It is precisely the baby’s “distorted” body and face—big eyes, big head, little limbs—that appears cute to us. Baby talk, back and forth, cements a bond between babies and adults that is based on a power differential; this can be seen as the first political relationship.

Thus baby talk always has a charged relationship to authority. Parents allow and encourage baby talk to the point of initiating it. The infant’s first words often reflect not the child’s sense of self but that of the parent: “mama” or “papa.” These first words are charged with recognition, and they initiate the distinction between self and other. Mostly the other comes first—“mama” or “papa,” rather than “baby” or “me”—and the other is the agent of authority, identity, and power. Linguist Roman Jakobson identified this as the universal eagerness of parents to be the first to be recognized, and Hegel himself identified the desire for recognition as the root of all struggles. Baby talk, like all language, is social in nature and imbeds within itself relations to power, authority, and nurturing. But unlike other languages, it is highly individualized, based on a minimal vocabulary with a reduced grammar and shrunken set of phonemes or sounds.

Hu boss? Me want u give me dat.

Cuteness is always associated with the youthful and young, even in old people. Like many animals, humans exhibit neoteny, the physiological retention of juvenile traits through adolescence and into adulthood. Cuteness in teenagers shares many of the qualities associated with that in children: large eyes, dimples, a button nose, or ringlets. These traits evoke a similar response even when they manifest in the elderly—the power of cuteness can span a lifetime. The aesthetics of visual cuteness are always located in proportion, which is to say, distortion: exaggerated proportions are what seem cute. But exaggerated proportions are also a characteristic of the grotesque: they may unsettle us or seem monstrous. Interestingly, baby talk among adults strikes certain witnesses as repulsive or even perverse—a kind of eruption of the grotesque. The very thing that seems natural to infants seems unnatural to adults, and its presence signals a great strangeness or charged intimacy. Television journalist Diane Sawyer and director Mike Nichols, married since 1988, occasionally play a game called “Captain Baby” on their days off together. One of them becomes Captain Baby, and whatever Captain Baby wants, he gets. The stressed urban power-couple unwinds by regressing to infancy.

Baby talk toys with the rules of language. It is unclear, often inarticulate, and shape-shifting; it is like the ghost of talking. It is not orderly and does not often follow rules of syntax, agreement, or subordination. It is also nonhierarchical, often lacking distinctions between subject and predicate or even subject and object. The asymmetry of baby talk might echo back to the asymmetry of the relations between parent and child. However, it also can begin to follow certain minimal and simple rules, the most reduced elements that make language work. Intonation is very important, and we see a pidgin reduction both of grammar and structure. Baby talk is quickly comprehensible if for no other reason than that it is highly bound by context. So strong is our identification with infants that we recoup meaning by intuiting what the baby might be saying, what it would most likely to want to say.

When found in the field (i.e., the nursery), baby talk is appealing as a symbol of innocence and cuteness, and this explains its hypnotic power among adults. What we think of as innocent is that which stands outside power relations. “Innocent” is different from “good” or “bad,” which together constitute a distinction of legitimation. In one sense, we think of the talking between infants and their parents as being characterized by authenticity, and thus the most natural—close to nature—and least social of languages. The baby comes to represent all that is good, all of human potential. Perhaps it also represents the id—all that is unknowable about us, both totally dependent and radically independent, or even rebellious.

Bad poo-poo, Bad.

The primary relations of language and the body are encoded in baby talk. The baby’s body, cute/grotesque, is the primary body. This first body is without boundaries, without control, without expression or self-knowing. Following either Lacan or Piaget, it is language which inscribes the body and language which articulates what the body may and may not do, what the good use and bad use of the body is, often within the same topography: where to shit, where to pee, and when, or when to use the mouth to smile and when to bite. The good and bad zones are defined in language, and hunger, pain, and despair are all recouped through it. Is there baby talk without parents? Not likely, since there are no infants without parental care. Doesn’t baby talk then inherently evoke authority, in the form of the parent? Certainly baby talk cements the bond between adult and baby, with two byproducts: we all ultimately emerge from childhood speaking like adults, and all of us have a specially charged, powerful relation to baby talk. 

When we look at the actual relations between those who have power and the disenfranchised, we see that the latter do not speak childishly, but the former sometimes do. George W. Bush, with his mispronunciations, malapropisms, folksy slang, and mangled syntax, addresses the nation with emotional but unilateral messages in a churlish style. With his mugging, goofing, endless smirks and scowls, Bush embodies Captain Baby. In the guise of protecting us against forces so powerful we cannot adequately perceive them, Bush conveys paternalism in a veiled form of baby talk. We understand him perfectly despite his miscommunications, because like the baby, we understand what he might be wanting to say. He is “the decider,” lips constantly puckered (on advice of his handlers, who urge him to avoid the thin-lipped Protestant mouth-set of his family) as though always ready for his bottle.

Patriarchy and infantilization are allied here, for rather than employ the bombastic or oracular tone of power, Bush speaks in the tone of familiarity. By being childish, he ironically exhorts us all to remain children—while any form of resistance is framed as childish or even unpatriotic. Patriarchy demands that we all remain children. The position of power is energized in resentment; the “sore winner” (a term coined by John Powers) is resentful at not having won bigger or owning more. That American culture is characterized by a sort of endless adolescence has escaped few commentators: our love of youth, pleasure, ownership, and winners; a nation of rugged individuals all oddly alike.

"I aim to be a competive nation." George W. Bush, 21 April 2006

Bush’s highly publicized 2003 “Mission Accomplished” landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was his infantile apotheosis. Swaddled in a flight suit, his crotch bulging either from his endowment, a sock, or perhaps a diaper, he embodied Captain Baby triumphant. Emulating aspects of Ronald Reagan’s staged authenticity (among them his familiar “fuzzy” modulated voice), Bush is one in a lineage of childish leaders. One can trace a line in the resentful authoritarianism of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to George Bush, Jr. All three have made remarkable missteps in which their childishness has not only been their undoing, but ours as a nation as well.   

How does one answer the all-powerful baby? What are the best strategies against the alliance of paternalism and infantilization? Reasonable speech, the kind I hope I’m making here, falls flat on the ears of the giant baby, but the childish angry scream fails as well. Can the multivalency of baby talk or its echo, its resonance, be put to any political use? It does offer us a locus for recognizing the complexity of power relations, including how power is both assigned and imposed and the ways in which the strong are less secure in their positions than it might seem. Can we mount a sort of singsong response to power?  Mimicry seems to be one of the keys. Parents imitating their infant’s babbles, and the infant’s first repetitions of “mama” and “papa,” form the first political relationships held in language. Owners often speak to their pets in a form of baby talk, but in the context of a specific strategy, to get their attention or to get them to do something. 

We certainly want our leaders’ attention, and we certainly want them to do things. Leaders are neither pets nor babies—they are closer to their opposites, but like us they occupy a place in what Fredric Jameson called the “political unconscious,” that inevitable and speechless place where power relations are inscribed into the psyche. The key mechanism to the acquisition of speech in the infant is in learning the necessity of turn-taking. The simple imitation of a baby’s babbling or cooing sets this up: it shows the infant that language is relational, the place in which relationships are recognized. All language is instantiated in us through relationships, but never are they relationships among equals. Language always ascends or descends. Perhaps the dream of innocence lurking in the spell of baby talk begins in the desire to actually find a relationship outside of power differences.

Can the revolution be started by the babies? This is the fantasy. Can we speak to power as ourselves? Kathy Acker once proposed that her literary project began in the creation of unbearable nonsense, which was the only possible answer to the equally unbearable nonsense of society. No one escapes babyhood, or infantilization. If the baby does represent the id, it is the id as recognized by the ego in relation to the super-ego. Is there a revolutionary project in recapturing a baby talk outside the parent and the patriarchy?  Is it possible to deploy a baby talk that answers the unbearable baby talk of power in America today? Can new forms of symmetry be created that challenge what appears to be a foundationally asymmetrical relationship between us and those who rule us?