Mei's "Too" Words

my daughter Mei

I'm the parent of an almost-three-year-old girl, and as a linguist, I couldn't be more tickled by some of the things she says. This is about the most interesting time to observe her acquisition of English, and I'm so busy I can barely record any of it. It almost makes me want to have another kid so I can be a more faithful data recorder and really contribute something.

Well, to be honest, I don't care about contributing so much as understanding the acquisition process myself. I tried doing some actual audio recording but quickly ran out of hard drive space. (I should burn some DVDs I guess.) Even without doing a really structured, formal study, I have noticed some pretty interesting patterns so far, in both her grammar and her pronunciation.

The first thing that got me recording what my daughter Mei was saying was some odd pronunciations of multi-syllable words I noticed. Instead of "pajamas", it sounded more like "toojamas". Instead of "banana", it was "toobyana". (Many of these mispronunciations have cleared up by now, but "toobyana" doesn't seem to be going anywhere.) Also, I couldn't help but notice that these words were pretty much the same words I'd heard in classic examples of children's mispronunciations (usually given as proof of how resistant children are to correction in these matters).

Between October 21st and Halloween (making Mei 2 years and 7 months old), anytime I heard her utter a word of more than one syllable, I'd run to the computer and type it in (or at least make a note for later). I'm sure I missed a bunch, but I think I did a fairly decent job. I also entered in any single-syllable mispronunciations I noticed. Excluding all the polysyllables she got right, here's what I came up with. (I'm using the same pronunciation symbols I describe in my post on English phonology.)

again = [tuwgén]
another = [@nÚd@r] or [nÚd@r]
banana = [tuwbyán@]
delicious = [tuwlíS@s]
giraffe = [dZraf]
pajamas = [tuwdZÁm@z]
potatoes = [t@téydUwz] or [p@téydUwz]
remember = [mémb@r] or [rémb@r]
together = [tuwgéd@r]
tomato = [tuwméydUw]
tomorrow = [tuwmÁrUw]
tonight = [tuwnÁyt]

Actually, these aren't all the polysyllabic mispronunciations I recorded, just the ones where stress falls on a non-initial syllable. I narrowed it down for you like this because this marked stress pattern is what I found to be at the root of the mispronunciations. Just look! All the words that begin with an unstressed syllable in Mei's idiolect begin with the sequence [tuw]!

OK, you got me. "Potatoes" doesn't fit the pattern. But it used to! I distinctly remember her saying [tuwpéydUwz] before I really started recording, but she apparently got over that before October 21st. Once, I caught her saying "too- potatoes"! I was onto the pattern by this time, so her correction was a big let-down. "Another" doesn't always fit either, but that first syllable really seems more like an article to me, even in adult speech (which explains phrases like "a whole other" and even "a whole nother").

my daughter Mei

So far I've described the pattern, but I haven't explained why this would happen. One good reason is how many words with non-initial stress actually do begin with /tuw/ in standard English (well, /t@/ actually, but I'll get back to that). It looks like a full third of this class of words in Mei's active vocabulary really should begin this way; it's definitely the most common initial syllable to be stressless. Second place is a tie between /@/ and /p@/. This helps to explain why she adjusted her pronunciation of "potatoes" so quickly, doesn't it?

So why was she saying [tuw] and not a fully stressless [t@] like the rest of us? I'm not really sure, but it is significant that she consistently pronounced the word "to" this way as well (and continues to). For example, the phrase "go to the potty" didn't get a weakened "to" at all; the word was still in its dictionary form. This indicates to me that there's no clear line for her between this usage of the sound [tuw] and the [tuw] that can put off a word's primary stress until the second syllable. What she thinks [tuw] means in isolation, I couldn't say. (Well, actually, in isolation, it probably means the number, just as it does for adults.)

It's also interesting to note that she actually overuses the word "to" (not just the syllable [tuw]) in phrases like "some to that" (for "some of that", as listed below).

What does this observation mean about the acquisition of pronunciation overall? I'd say it's that stress patterns, for English at least, are exremely important. Even more important that the actual sounds being produced. Notice that for "pajamas", Mei simply replaced the first syllable with a [tuw], but for "banana", she prefixed a [tuw] and squished the rest of the word down to two syllables. Actually, compressing the word down to [byán@] should have been enough, as [dZraf] was for "giraffe". This seems to be the preferred option for adults, as evidenced by variants such as "nanners" and "taters". The point is, it doesn't matter so much how a word fits the canonical tone contour, just that it does.

Here's a bunch more of Mei's words I recorded during this period, just in case you're interested.

airplane = [érpleyn]
animal = [iám@m@l]
apple = [Áp@l]
bathroom = [báTruNg] or [báfruNg]
beautiful = [byúwf@l]
better = [béd@r]
broccoli = [bÁkliy] or [blÁkliy]
butterfly = [bÚd@flAy]
camera = [krámr@]
candy = [kyándiy]
chocolate = [SÁklit]
crackers = [krák@rz]
crazy = [kréyziy] or [kreyz@]
daddy = [dádiy]
dance = [diáns]
different = [drífrint]
dinosaur = [dÁyn@sor]
dirty = [dÚrdiy]
dolphin = [dÁlfin]
dominoes = [dÁm@nUwz]
elephant = [él@fint]
English = [íNgliS] or [íNg@liS] [íNkliS]
everybody = [éviybAdiy]
flower = [fláw@r]
getting = [gídiNg]
going = [gÚwiNg] or [gÚyNg]
gonna = [gU]
gorgeous = [górdZ@s]
groceries = [grÚws@riyz]
hamburger = [hábUg@r]
happy = [hápiy]
house = [haw@s] or [haws]
ketchup = [kétSUp]
lion = [láy@n]
little = [lí(d@)l]
little bit of = [bid@ bid@]
M&Ms = [ném@ nemz]
mommy = [mÁmiy]
monkey = [mÚNkiy] or [bÚNkiy]
muscles = [mÚs@lz]
music = [múwzik] or [múwsik]
mustache = [smÚstaS] or [mÚstaS]
napkin = [mákkin] or [mákin]
nighttime = [náytaym]
number = [nUmb@r]
oatmeal = [Úwk@mil]
other = [Úd@r]
pink-cup = [píNkUp]
potty = [pÁdiy]
pumpkin = [pÚNkin]
quacks = [kraks]
quiet = [krÁyit]
sandwich = [SámitS]
says = [seyz]
second = [sékint]
snuggling = [snÚg@l?iNg]
some of = [sÚmbUv]
some of that = [sUm tuwdát]
somebody = [sÚmbAdiy]
something = [sÚmpiNg]
something else = [sÚmpiNg mels]
Spanish = [spániS]
stroller = [strÚwl@r]
thirsty = [TÚrstiy]
throw = [tUw]
tiger = [táyg@r]
triangle = [SráyNg@l] or [tSráyNg@l]
trick or treat = [sík@r tSriyt]
use = [nuwz] or [iúwz]
wanna = [wAn]
water = [wÁd@r]
with = [wif]

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At January 5, 2009 7:03 PM , Blogger Tlvsn said...
good times

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