• Stephen Scheidell

Baby Talk: Toward a Critical Analysis of Normative Structures

Let me begin with a thought experiment. Imagine a college linguistics professor whose first-born child is just beginning to learn to speak. Imagine now that this professor speaks to the child in the same way as lectures or talks with students and colleagues. (Ignore the unlikeliness of this happening; it's a thought experiment.)


Imagine that instead of using baby talk with the child, this professor lectures at home about what idiosyncratically characterizes baby talk—slower rate of speech, shorter words, shorter utterances, melodic intonation, vowel hyperarticulation. Imagine as well this same professor goes into class the next day and lectures in, but not about, baby talk. (Actually, tickets to that please.)


There's something obviously absurd about this image. However, it does clearly show a centerpiece of language: namely, the fact that a speaker or writer is always catering to an audience. Sometimes that catering is a matter of efficient discourse: the students would be able to understand a lecture in baby talk, but it would be harder to understand and take longer to say the same content than in a standard manner. Other times, however, the catering is what makes discourse possible at all: such as switching from English to Spanish for someone who knows one but not the other.


A real world example of this that I'll never forget was in my first year in a Christian undergrad program. We had a student for whom Spanish was his second language, so the professor (who'd lived and taught in Latin America) would reword pivotal ideas or concepts but in Spanish. However unorthodox it may be for a teacher to disrupt the flow of a lecture for one student, it was a brilliant service to all of us. For that student, it made sure that he heard and understood central concepts in his mother tongue. For the rest of us, it accentuated that particular idea and gave us a little extra time to process it.


While these examples are more extreme cases, best practice for writing and speaking in any case is to know the audience and adjust to that audience. If an argument or a presentation doesn't address an interest, meet a need, or assuage a concern, then what you have to say could very well be meaningless to that audience.


One could object that what I'm saying here is simply a basic rule of clear communication rather than anything related to ethics. However, I want to highlight what even that objection assumes: namely, the first stage of creating meaning is the posture of catering to another person. So even in this simply-clear-communication argument, the ethics of discourse always go before the content discussed.


In a recent conversation with a mentor, we came to characterize this idea as "learning how to write what I mean in a way that sounds like I want to be read" in contrast to the highly dense and terse prose to which I'd become accustomed in academic writing.


This practice is a kind of hospitality. It invites other people to take part in the world that we know and love, thereby also becoming a part of that world. They can in turn extend the same hospitality so that a world becomes literally shared.

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