On the Finer Points of Baby Talk in Japan

Culture Lifestyle

Anyone who has children, or has friends or family that do, knows that most adults, no matter what their background, turn into blithering idiots when holding a baby. When speaking, we unconsciously use exaggerated pitch, repeat phrases, and shorten and simplify words—often in tandem with clicking, cooing, and overdone facial expressions—to elicit a gurgle or smile from the little one in our arms.

Researchers call this “caregiver language” or “infant-directed speech,” but it is best known simply as baby talk, and it is found in nearly every culture and language in the world. In Japan, the lexicon surrounding infants and small children is known as ikujigo, or child-rearing words.

Language for Little Ones

A distinguishing aspect of Japanese ikujigo compared to other types of baby talk is the frequent use of words that are distinct and separate from adult forms. For example, in English, diminutive forms used when addressing small children usually do not vary greatly from their grown-up counterparts, with dogs and ducks becoming “doggies and duckies.” In ikujigo, however, words may be completely different, with caregivers in Japanese referring to a dog (inu) as wanwan and a duck (ahiru) as gaga.

Many words, particularly names for animals, are onomatopoetic and repetitive in nature, making them easy for little ones to say and remember. Some other animal names based on mimicking their sounds are mōmō (cow), nyannyan (cat), poppo (pigeon), and kokko (chicken). Outside the animal world, ponpon (tummy) comes from the sound of tapping one’s belly and būbū (car or truck) is derived from the sound of a vehicle's horn.

Non-onomatopoetic repetition is also a common feature of ikujigo, such as in kukku (shoes), nene (go to sleep), panpan (bread), kireikirei (wipe/wash hands), and nainai (put away). Other words, like kamikami (chew) and sukisuki (hug, show affection) are formed by doubling conjunctive forms of adult words. Research has shown that Japanese caregivers often look to the word choice and pronunciation of their child as a guide in deciding what vocabulary to use, showing a tendency toward child-driven phrases.

The Linguistic Differences Ikujigo Offers

Simplified grammar is characteristic of all baby talk, but truncated language is especially prevalent with ikujigo. A parent speaking to their child in English would likely pair verbs and nouns, for instance “It’s a cat” or “Eat the cracker,” even if a child is yet unable to utter the phrase. In Japanese, on the other hand, a caregiver may often drop particles and modifiers all together and rely on a single noun or verb, like onri to ask a child to get down or mogumogu when encouraging a child to eat.

Similar to standard Japanese, honorifics play an important part in ikujigo. Body parts are almost always the same as adult forms combined with the honorific prefix o-, such as okuchi (mouth), omimi (ear), oyubi (finger, toe), and ohana (nose). Otsumu (head) and otete (hand) carry the honorific prefix, but are only used with young children. An’yo (foot, feet) is one of the few exceptions of an ikujigo body word with no honorific. Other children the same age or younger are referred to as otomodachi (friend), while older boys and girls are called onīchan (older brother) and onēchan (older sister).

When interacting with other children at the park or playgroups, Japanese caregivers must pay close attention to etiquette and be quick to apologize for any social faux pas their little ones make. Grabbing a toy without asking, as kids do, might be met with a reprimanding me, a kiddie version of dame (no, must not) from a caregiver, who will then give a well-practiced gomennasai (sorry) to the victim of the theft. A sing-songy kashite (may I have it) is the proper way to ask to use a toy in the grip of another otomodachi.

Age-Appropriate Vocabulary

While not strictly ikujigo, there is an abundance of specialized vocabulary associated with looking after a baby. Oppai is a general term meaning breast, but with babies it is also used to mean breast milk. Formula is known as miruku, a noun taken from the English word milk. When going out, parents will push their child in a beibīkā (stroller, pram) or carry them in a dakko himo (front baby carrier), and if the child is worn out after a day of playing, he or she might ask for onbu (piggyback).

It is important to note that ikujigo varies regionally. The above examples are common in Tokyo and the greater Kantō area. For example, a mother in Tokyo would likely use enko or encho to tell their child to sit down, whereas a mom in Ōita Prefecture on the island of Kyūshū might say chanko. Likewise, Tokyo parents will use bacchichi to say something is dirty, while in the western prefecture of Shimane they might use chanai.

There are some who argue that young Japanese speakers are put at a disadvantage through the use of ikujigo as it requires them to relearn adult forms of words as they get older. There is little credible evidence showing Japanese children are left at a communicative disadvantage, though. Other researchers have hinted that baby talk symbolizes the underlying societal value system: while in many Western languages it reflects a cultural sense of autonomy, the structure of ikujigo echoes the values of order and social harmony characteristic of Japan.

Regardless of the validity of these arguments, most caregivers around the world gradually transition away from baby talk as their child’s ability to speak develops. By around two years, the need for a simpler lexicon begins to wane as children move into the lightning round of language acquisition, as any parent who has found a slip of the lip being repeated excitedly by their toddler can attest.

Kids grow up quickly, and probably the greatest commonality between ikujigo and other “parentese” is the feeling of intimacy and bonding provided to both caregiver and child.

(Banner photo: © Jiji Press Photo)

language Japanese baby infant directed speech