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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

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.


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    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (31-Oct-2012)
  2. Re: Greek Babbling    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (31-Oct-2012)
  3. Re: Greek Babbling    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (01-Nov-2012)
  4. Re: Greek Babbling    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (31-Oct-2012)

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