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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.