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Infantilization of Lexis

Up until a certain age American children, like children in other countries, articulate the vocables of their native language in a childish way because their linguistic abilities are commensurate with their physical development in other respects. Whereas until about forty years ago these childish speech patterns were outgrown from pre-adolescence on, it is now typical of the speech of young American women in particular to retain what used to be purely puerile traits into adulthood. This recessive infantilization of language broadly affects the vocal timbre as well as the intonation of female adult speakers, to the point where a young American woman who doesn’t sound like a superannuated child is exceptional. (Those who are familiar with female speech patterns in Japanese will immediately recognize the cross-cultural similarity to the contemporary American situation.) Whether speaking like a child into adulthood is to be reckoned an apotropaic linguistic adaptation, of a piece with other behavioral strategies calculated to forestall conflict, is an open question.

Infantilization can also affect lexis as well as phonetics. The current preference for the Lallwörter (nursery words)  “mom,” “dad,” and “kid” instead of their grownup counterparts “mother,” “father,” and “child” is clearly an example of this phenomenon. With increasing frequency, public speech (both oral and written) refers to “single mom” and “stay-at-home mom” regardless of the stylistic register of the context in which these phrases are embedded. In fact, the media routinely eschew designating parents by their stylistically neutral names. Particularly jarring is the neologism “grandkid,” connoting as it does (regardless of the age of the child) yet another instance of an American cultural tropism toward a state of permanent infantilism––here, tellingly, of both the grandchild AND the grandparent.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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