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Subject: Greek Babbling
Question: When infants begin babbling, the first sounds after vowels are usually the stops. First of those are the labials. Because they are very productive in world languages, [b], [p], and [d] are usually the first. In Greek, [b] and [d] are infrequent phones. In fact, there are no letters for these phones; instead, combinations are made: μπ for [b] and ντ for [d]. Does this mean, then, that Greek babies, when they begin babbling, do not begin with the sounds [b] and [d]? And if they do, is that just further proof that much of language acquisition is innate and there is some sort of Universal Grammar?
Reply: Hi, John, While I am a confirmed 'innatist' and 'universalist', one has to keep in mind what Dr. Gupta pointed out, and which most linguists are agreed on, that babies of all languages begin babbling in very similar ways, which in later months of the babbling stage get more and more molded by the language(s) they are exposed to. As languages inevitably change, some may go through stages in which some sounds that are supposedly 'universal' may disappear from the *phonetic* inventory. As an example, the now extinct Salish language Lushootseed, aside from a couple of borrowings from related neighbors, had no nasal consonant phonemes: any nasal sounds were converted to the corresponding voiced stop. (Thus the word for 'town', borrowed from English, is tawd, but it then takes on complicated, reduplicated, aspects of Lushootseed morphology.) On a related note, no modern linguist would ignore interjections (a subclass of what are called 'pragmatic markers') as integral elements of a language's grammar--they do, actually, but they shouldn't. And speaking of universals, *ALL* languages have some interjections which consist obligatorily of sounds that are not in the phonemic inventory of the language (for example, the positive and negative English vocalic interjections, which contain nasalized vowels--try pronouncing 'uh-huh' with a non- nasalized vowel: impossible!, although no 'normal' English words have phonemically nasalized vowels, and this word *cannot* be pronounced **[UHn UHn] {sorry, my popup symbol window is not working}). And, although a few linguists might dispute the integral inclusion of interjections in the grammar of a language, *no* linguist, AFAIK, has ever used the existence of such non- phonemic sounds in interjections as an argument that there are phonemic nasal vowels in English. (not even me!) Conversely, the two or three borrowed Lushootseed words with phonetic nasals do not prove that the language *did* have actual nasal phonemes, any more than the English pronunciation [bax] for Bach 'proves' that English has the phoneme /x/. The bottom line is that we have to take a global view of linguistic phenomena: they are complex, as Dr. Gupta and others have pointed out, and must be considered in their proper context. Jim James L. Fidelholtz Graduate Program in Language Sciences Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO
Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
Date: 01-Nov-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Greek Babbling    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (01-Nov-2012)
  2. Re: Greek Babbling    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (31-Oct-2012)
  3. Re: Greek Babbling    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (31-Oct-2012)
  4. Re: Greek Babbling    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (31-Oct-2012)

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