Oochy woochy coochy coo? Consult linguistics, says Captain Kirk

Some of you may already know what I’m on about. For everyone else, let’s dive right in to the ‘Friday’s Child’ episode of the original Star Trek series, which aired in December 1967. Transcript and video clip are below the fold.

An image from Star Trek. McCoy, in blue uniform top and dark trousers, stands beside a woman in a long robe holding a baby wrapped in a dark sheet. Both adults are looking lovingly at the child and smiling. Behind them is a rocky hill with sparse bushes. I've added a speech bubble coming from McCoy: "Oochy woochy coochy coo!"

KIRK: We missed you, Mister Scott.
SCOTT: Well, sir, we had a wee bit of a run-in with a Klingon vessel, but he had no stomach for fighting. We checked the encampment, found out you were here, and had no trouble at all in tracking you down. I could—
[BABY CRIES]
MCCOY: No, that’s not the way to handle it. Here, like this. Here, take his little head like that. There, arm in a – that’s it. See how easy? Oochy woochy coochy coo. Oochy woochy coochy coo.
SPOCK: Oochy woochy coochy coo, Captain?
KIRK: An obscure Earth dialect, Mister Spock. Oochy coochy coochy coo. If you’re curious, consult linguistics.
SPOCK: Well, at any rate, this should prove interesting.
KIRK: Interesting?
SPOCK: When the woman starts explaining how the new high teer is actually Doctor McCoy’s child.
SCOTT: What’s that again, Mister Spock?
KIRK: We don’t actually understand it ourselves, Mister Scott.
SPOCK: Nor does Doctor McCoy.
MCCOY: Oochy woochy coochy coo. Oochy woochy coochy coo.

‘If you’re curious, consult linguistics.’ All right, Captain. Let’s explore strange new words.

‘Oochy woochy coochy coo’ is from a register of English known variously as motherese, baby talk, caregiver/caretaker talk/speech/language, etc.* It’s not a dialect, and it’s not obscure, but we’ll give Kirk a break, since his answer is obviously tongue in cheek.

Elizabeth Grace Winkler, in her book Understanding Language, describes this form of communication as ‘characterized by extreme variations in pitch and tone, simplification of grammatical forms and a great deal of repetition’. The sudden, radical changes in McCoy’s speech patterns when he addresses the baby are unmistakable.

Jean Aitchison, in her psycholinguistics primer The Articulate Mammal, elaborates on the special style of caregiver language:

It tends to be slower, spoken with higher pitch, and with exaggerated intonation contours. The utterances are shorter, with the average length being approximately one-third of that found in speech addressed to adults. The sentences are well-formed, simple in structure, and repetitious, in that the same lexical items recur, though in slightly different combinations. Special ‘baby’ words are sometimes used, such as doggie, birdie, gee-gee, chuff-chuff, tum-tum.

The style and content of caregiver talk change as a child grows. The baby in ‘Friday’s Child’, being a newborn, has yet to begin babbling or anything like that, so McCoy just deploys the playful, ritualized nonsense-string ‘Oochy woochy coochy coo’. (The OED has examples of coochy coo from the 19thC and notes that it often occurs ‘with reduplication of the first element’.)

Such infant-directed speech is not universal, as Spock’s puzzlement shows. Some cultures engage in it negligibly if at all, and their children, far from growing up linguistically deficient or impoverished, do just fine, as long as there is some exposure to language in use. A chapter in Abby Kaplan’s great mythbuster Women Talk More Than Men reviews the research in this complex area and concludes:

Each child acquires language at a different rate, but overall, patterns of language acquisition appear to be remarkably stable even across cultures with very different child-rearing practices. Children, it seems, are born ready to learn language, and as long as they’re surrounded by a community of language users, they will succeed.

Kaplan adds:

Some parents tend to repeat or expand on their children’s utterances, but it is unclear whether children actually use this kind of feedback to correct their own speech. Since there are societies in which this kind of interaction is rare, it is unlikely that repetitions and expansions are absolutely necessary for language acquisition.

The ‘Friday’s Child’ episode of Star Trek was written by Dorothy Catherine Fontana, who died last year. In this interesting interview, she reflects on her time writing for the show.

Linguistics has a natural home in sci-fi/fantasy. Shatner also features in my post on Incubus (1966), a psychotronic oddity filmed in Esperanto, while another conlang, Klingon, became an unexpected success in the Star Trek fan world. Esperanto and Klingon, despite their artificial origins, are both full languages – unlike oochy woochy coochy coo.

*

* Motherese reflects the original subjects of such study; fatherese came later, and though the two styles differ, parentese points to overlap. As understanding of the phenomenon and the scope of research grew, these terms were superseded by less catchy but more accurate ones that acknowledged the role of other minders.

9 Responses to Oochy woochy coochy coo? Consult linguistics, says Captain Kirk

  1. “below the fold” – I’ve not seen what I thought was strictly a print newspaper term used on the net before, although a quick Google shows this is probably because I haven’t been paying attention properly. I am amused that a term that grew out of the way newspapers were arranged and displayed for sale in a shop will survive the likely death of print news …

    • Stan Carey says:

      The irony isn’t lost on me! I guess it’s skeuomorphism in phrasal form. I don’t use the phrase often, but I see it on sites like Language Log, which may be where I picked it up.

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Yet “above the fold” does not seem to have travelled across to the net, despite the fact that for a journalist, especially on the front page or right hand page, gives a more prominent positioning for your yarn.

  3. John Cowan says:

    When I worked at the New York Times for a week as a high-school intern, I was told that the most important story went at the top of column 5 of 8; that is, the left edge of the right half of the top half of the page, this being the most visible when twice-folded papers were stacked. (The paper has since switched from 8 columns to 6.)

    I also learned how to determine which edition of the paper you had by looking at the front page. In this scan of the front page for January 14, 2011, if you enlarge the image and look in the upper left corner just under “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, you’ll see this: “VOL CLX .. No. 25,248” The numbers represent the years since the paper was founded in 1851 and the running issue number (there are some gaps due to strikes and such).

    But the two dots means that this is the second edition of the day. The early edition that was available the night before publication (discontinued in 1997) had four dots, and the morning edition had three. After that it went to two dots, one dot, no dots, a plus sign, two plus signs … No dots and beyond were usually only reached on Election Day and similar long-running but fast-breaking events. It’s very easy to eradicate the dots one by one during offset printing, and once they are all gone, adding plus signs into the whitespace isn’t hard either.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I never knew about the dots and pluses. That’s a nice bit of insider detail. (It must have been fun to put the New York Times on your CV, too.)

      • The Times (of London) had (?has? – it’s about ten years since I worked there) a similar system involving stars, with each page starting off each evening with five stars at the top, and losing a star for every editon change. The editions were actually named for the number of stars, so the first edition was the five-star, the second the four-star and so on. Not every page was changed every time, so the final edition would have pages with differing numbers of stars. Edition times were rigid, but it was possible, if it was important enough, to have a “slip edition” where just one page would be changed, and that would be indicated by half a star being lost on the page that was changed. The system could obviously cope with up to 11 changes per page – it would be a rare breaking news story indeed that would require more than that, between the first edition at around 8:30pm (sent out to Ireland and the Highlands and Islands) and the last at around 4:30am (for London).

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