LINGUIST List 11.1609

Mon Jul 24 2000

Sum: Teletubbies Language

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Claudia Bubel, Teletubbies Language

Message 1: Teletubbies Language

Date: Mon, 24 Jul 2000 16:29:52 +0200
From: Claudia Bubel <>
Subject: Teletubbies Language

For Query: Linguist 11.668

Dear Colleagues -

	a couple of months ago I posted a query on the language of the
Teletubbies. With the help of your responses we were able to put together
a little talk for the Open Day of Saarland University. The presentation was
a big success as Tubbytalk has caused some concern in parents and
childcarers and people were very interested in a linguistic perspective on
the issue.

I would like to thank the following:

David Fertig for pointing out that there are
"semi-Britishisms that slip into the American version apparently unnoticed.
The most obvious is when the American narrator asks: "Where have all the
Teletubbies gone?", where an American would almost always say: "Where did
all the Teletubbies go?" I've noticed several other examples that occur
less frequently."

Prof. Geoffrey Sampson:
"You probably already realize that the creators of the Teletubbies series
believed, and had respectable arguments, for the series being beneficial
for small children's education, despite the storm of criticism arguing
that it was the opposite. I have no specific references, but indices for
British national newspapers about the time when the series started would
lead you to relevant material."

Joseph Hilferty for referring me to the INFO-CHILDES List, where you will
find an extensive discussion of the topic at:

Dom Watt, Thomas W. Powell and Jim Scobbie for referring me to Shelley
Velleman who kindly provided me with her paper on Tubby phonology.

Tissa Salter, Ines Schneider, Sharon Unsworth who are also interested in
and working on Teletubbies language.

Philippa Cook for forwarding my mail to the BBC and Ragdoll people.

Aside from the issues dealt with on the INFO CHILDES List and Shelley
Velleman, our chair Neal Norrick came up with the following thoughts on the

By age, shortest to longest: Po, Lala, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky
By "das Gesetz der wachsenden Glieder" the naming of the TTs should always
proceed from Po, but in fact the TTs are introduced starting with
Tinky-Winky. Is there a system here? Maybe, they leave Po to final
position, because that's the most salient in discourse?

Typical features: reduplication in two names

According to Jakobson, p is most natural consonant, expected to occur first
in child lg, according to the normal order of acquisition child language
researchers agree on. Actually, pa would be most natural CV syllable, and
pi would come next, but these already have other meanings and can't be
used. This makes Po the ideal child language name. Lala goes back to the
a and shows reduplication. These factors would make Lala a good choice,
but the l is difficult for little kids, who usually realize it as w. 

Are the TTs bad speech models for child viewers?
Do the TTs really provide bad models? Not, really. 
First, consider the whole system, including the narrator. The narrator
provides a perfect adult model, then the TTs provide models of child
language competence graded by age, clarified by size. In fact, the TTs
probably just instantiate the same speech patterns most kids hear in their
everyday lives otherwise, namely adult speakers and kids of various ages.
Following Krashen and other researchers in language acquisition, the TTs
illustrate an ideal langauge-learning environment, viz one including models
on different levels, so that kids can find a model just beyond their active
competence in order to improve. The frequent repetition of structures
provides excellent input for the first and second language learner though
the inconsistencies in the pronunciation might confuse the learner.

Will kids pick up poor speech habits from the series? 
Not if we mean that they'll actually acquire these habits as their standard
competence. Of course, kids may imitate the TTs, just as they imitate
other kids. In doing so, they may imitate language patterns below their
own level of competence. This too is normal: kids mock littler kids for
their infantile speech habits and we all imitate babies to sound cute. But
even kids recognize that they're imitating TTs or other kids for some
reason. Moreover, TV (and the stage and literature of all kinds) has
always used dialects and speech defects for humor. Kids naturally like to
imitate Donald Duck etc for comic effect, but it doesn't have any long-term
effects on their language competence.

Routine formulae:
The Teletubbies are far politer than the little children whose language
competence they are intended to mirror. They always use "pardon" to
indicate that they have not understood a word or phrase and the use "thank
you" and "please" abundantly. In this respect they seem to have a role
model function.

- - --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

Claudia Bubel
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin
Lehrstuhl Prof. Dr. Neal R. Norrick
Fachrichtung 4.3 Anglistik
Universitaet des Saarlandes
Postfach 15 11 50
D-66041 Saarbruecken

Tel.: 0681 - 302 - 2270
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