Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2017 Fund Drive.

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

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: See Dr Cruz-Ferreira's response about child language acquisition. To her response I would add that the spelling is not as significant as it first appears. I assume from your comment about μπ for [b] and ντ for [d] that you are referring to Modern Greek. This spelling is actually a result of a sound change from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek. In earlier stages of Greek "μπ" was the cluster [mp] and "ντ" was [nt] That stage of Greek also did have /b/ which is was spelled as "β" and /d/ which was the letter "δ". But in Modern Greek β and δ are now [v] and [ð]. In other words, some of the Greek consonants underwent a series of sound shifts, one of which was [mp,nt] --> [b,d], but the spelling of the letters was not updated to reflect the new sound changes. This is common in languages with a long written history. Note though that BOTH stages of Greek maintain a phoneme for [b,d]. While these sounds are not the least marked, they are common in many world languages. It's often the case that if a language loses a relative common sound due to a phonological sound change, a second sound change may reintroduce the sound. All of this tends to be consistent with child language acquisition order. Hope this makes sense.
Reply From: Elizabeth J Pyatt      click here to access email
Date: 31-Oct-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    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (31-Oct-2012)
  4. Re: Greek Babbling    James L Fidelholtz     (01-Nov-2012)

Back to Most Recent Questions