Baby Talks: Approximantation

Yes, my baby is still practicing fricative harmony. She’s also doing something else, which is approximanting? Is that even a word? She makes stops into approximants, is what I mean.

I speak General American English, so my intervocalic dental stops become flaps. I realize <water> and <daddy> as  [ˈwɑɾɚ] and [ˈdæɾi].

VtV > VɾV

VdV > VɾV

My wife and her family, however, speak Bulgarian, whose baby-talk register regularly replaces alveolar trills with alveolar approximants and alveolar approximants with palatal approximants. They realize <ribalov> (“fishing”) as /liba’jof/.*

r > l

l > j

Put those two tendencies together, and my baby pronounces <water> as /’wɑlø:/**

VtV > VɾV > VlV

While <belly> is /’bɛji:/

VlV > VjV

Simple enough, or so I thought until I heard the way she pronounces <baggy>: /’bæɰi/

VgV > VɰV

And <daddy> is not *dæli, it’s /’dæji/. My mother in law thinks she’s saying /dai/ (“give!”), but my mother in law is wrong. My baby is saying “daddy”

VdV >VɾV > VlV > VjV

So it looks like the rule my baby has generalized is:

Make voiced intervocalic stops into approximates. Make unvoiced intervocalic stops into lateral approximates. Make lateral approximates into semivowels.

In other words, find your phoneme in the below chart and skip three spaces right.


To test whether this is true, I should see if she makes these realizations:

<happy> as /ˈhæʋi/ (? I guess? Since there isn’t such a thing as a labial lateral approximant)

<baby> as /ˈbeɪwi/

<carry> as /ˈkɛ.ji/

<cheeky> as /tʃiːʟi/

Wish me luck!


*the final /f/ is because of European final-obstruent devoicing and is present in adult registers as well

**not entirely sure about that final vowel. It’s a rounded something-or-other. What babies usually use to replace /ɚ/.

This entry was posted in Language is Great! and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Okay! I did some of those experiments, and found out my theory was wrong. My daughter pronounces as /ˈbeɪbi/ and as /ˈkɛwi/ or /ˈkɛi/. She seems to pronounce bilabial stops exactly as in Standard English. It may be that she’s just approximantizing dental stops and whatever is going on with > /bæɰi/ is some other process entirely. However, I am confident in the rule VtV > VdV >VɾV > VlV > VjV > ViV. is realized as /’kɪli/ or even /’ki/. is /dæji/ or /dæi/. Interestingly, is /paɪlø/ or /paiø/ and is /’wɑlø/ or /wɑø/, implying that the sequence is VtV > VdV >VɾV > VlV > VV if the second vowel is rounded.

    I still don’t know what’s going on with : /’bæɰi/. I need to quiz her on intervocalic velar stops.

    Oh, and happy birthday to her! My younger daughter turns two today 🙂