James Joyce’s Baby Talk (and Swift’s and Lear’s)


Arts & Culture


I don’t know that much about what babies actually say. I don’t have any. The ones I’ve seen in people’s apartments didn’t say anything. In one of my poems, I call babies “the crying people.” Heard plenty of that. The ones who said things were a bit older. The tiny ones gurgle.

It doesn’t matter. When we talk about baby talk, we’re almost never talking about what comes out of the mouths of infants. We’re talking about the stuff we do that bears an important resemblance to what comes out of the mouths of infants. It’s all about (a) saying a lot more than you’re saying and (b) cute-ing it up.

Everybody remembers the beginning of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

All that looks authentic to me. The story is about baby tuckoo, and I am baby tuckoo. She sold lemon platt. O, the green wothe botheth. It’s all thoughts in little surges, with square wheels. People talking nonsense to you. The senses. Helplessness.

I gave that to my students by way of trying to get them to give Gertrude Stein a fair shake. Now everybody knows that depending on where you teach, it can be hard to get the kids to give Gertrude Stein any kind of shake, let alone a fair one. I judged my school to be such a place.

So I showed ’em the Joyce above and said: Okay. The justification for writing that way was mimicry. The writer wanted you to enter the mental space of the person being described. It’s baby talk ’cuz he’s talking about a baby, more or less. But what happens if somebody uses baby talk to say sophisticated adult things? What then?

Then I handed out the beginning of Stein’s lecture What Are Master-Pieces, and Why Are There So Few of Them?:

I was almost going to talk this lecture and not write and read it because all the lectures that I have written and read in America have been printed and although possibly for you they might even being read be as if they had not been printed still there is something about what has been written having been printed which makes it no longer the property of the one who wrote it and therefore there is no more reason why the writer should say it out loud than anybody else and therefore one does not.

Therefore I was going to talk to you but actually it is impossible to talk about master-pieces and what they are because talking essentially has nothing to do with creation. I talk a lot I like to talk and I talk even more than that I may say I talk most of the time and I listen a fair amount too and as I have said the essence of being a genius is to be able to talk and listen to listen while talking and talk while listening but and this is very important very important indeed talking has nothing to do with creation. What are master-pieces and why after all are there so few of them. You may say after all there are a good many of them but in any kind of proportion with everything that anybody who does anything is doing there are really very few of them. All this summer I meditated and wrote about this subject and it finally came to be a discussion of the relation of human nature and the human mind and identity. The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation. That is what makes school. Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself.

This gets to the heart of the matter. The above is a kind of higher baby talk (I’m tempted to call it Mahayana baby talk—“Greater Vehicle”). Stein’s voice is one of knowledge and authority. Good. So why no commas? Why the square wheels? Why the funny inefficiency? Answer: ’Cuz it says more that way. It says more, and it does more.

The truth is nobody goes in for baby talk—not even babies—in order to say less. It’s always to say more. This is my deep (and only) insight.

Look at Jonathan Swift. That guy’s brains were squirming like a toad—to quote the American philosopher James Douglas Morrison. Gulliver’s Travels is full of made-up languages and made-up proper nouns, a few of which had sufficient ring to them to make them household words almost three hundred years later. Lilliput, Lilliputian … There are others. But don’t look at that. Look at these sign-offs, from Journal to Stella:

Tis pretty late now ung oomens, so I bid oo Nite own deedallars.
[’Tis pretty late now, young womens, so I bid you ’night, <my> own dear girls.]

Nite deelest Logues rove Pdfr.
[’Night, dearest rogues, love Poor Dear Fellow] (or “Poor Dear Foolish Rogue,” nobody knows for sure)

Those are relatively easy specimens of Swift’s “little language” (or, as he calls it, “ourrichar Gangridge”—our little language). He deploys it sparingly in the bodies of the letters but lays it on thick in the sign-offs. Remember, he’s writing not just to Stella but to her lifelong companion Rebecca Dingley. Stella (real name: Esther Johnson) was thirty, thirty-one; Rebecca was more like forty-four, forty-five—as was Swift. Good. Now look at the sign-off to the first letter in the series:

The Post is come from London ad just going out; so I have only time to pray Gd to bress poor richr Md FW FW FW Md Me Me Me.
[The post is come from London and just going out, so I have only time to pray God to bless poor little m’dears—farewell, farewell, farewell, my dears—me, me, me.]

I’m not sure it’s “me, me, me” he’s saying there. It might be some gddmn abbreviation. (It’s actually harder for me to read the little language than it is for most people. I have this disease where I think abbreviations are for envelopes, and so I experience that last little squirt up there as an indiscriminate pile of Maryland, Fort Worth, and Maine.)

Back to baby talk. If ever there was baby talk, the little language is baby talk. “So Nite my deelest nuntyes nine Md.” (So ’night, my dearest monkeys mine, m’dears.) It’s all sugar puffs and toddler pronunciation. Does it say more, does it do more than normal talk? It does. It must be admitted that this is Lesser Vehicle baby talk, but it’s supercharged language just the same.

I’ve been asking people for years about their pet names for their loved ones. I find there’s a grammar to it. The mood is hyperabundance. Lots of repetition. Certain vowels (ee, oo) dominate. The intonations correspond to the whining shift from a normal chord to a seventh chord on the guitar (A7, B7, and so on). You can watch it happen in “Happy Birthday to You”:



I’m not a musicologist. I use the word whining—it’s all I got. Yet there’s deep stuff there. Whining is what happens when there’s all this visceral tension—desire, thwartedness—and it achieves some release through sound. Release, not relief. Lovers’ baby talk is full of that, even if the thwartedness comes only from the fact that the speaker—the whining, meowing, note-bending speaker—simply feels that no words are sufficient to convey their love. That’s what’s going on with Swift up there, except it’s not so much whining as sighing. Same department. Just take desire out of the calculus.

It’s getting late. Time to bring in Edward Lear. He makes me whine and meow and all that ’cuz there’s no way to do justice to his range of baby talk. Some of his favorite effects come from misusing big words the way children do and of course spelling things not just how they sound but how they sound when they’ve been misheard by a kid. Here ya go—this is a letter:

Stratford Place Gazette
7th August 1866
(9534th Edition)


We regret to state that at 4 P.M. this day the well known Author & Landscape painter Edward Lear committed sukycide by throwing hisself out of a 5 pair of stairs winder. The cause of this amazing & obsequious conclusion to a well spent & voracious life, we understand to be as follies: — Mr L, having returned from a visit to some friends at Hastings, wrote to them on his return to London begging them immeejiately to forward a book called ‘The Gothe & the Un’ which he supposed he had left at their house. On this day however, the said book tumbled spongetaneously out of a coat which had not been opened or shaken or examined or craxpaxified in any way whatsoever; on seeing which the unfortunate Gentleman tore his hair promiscuous, & bitterly reproached his self with the trouble he had given to Mrs and Mr G. Scrivens, likewise Mr Bennell: & finally giving way to dishpear, opened the window & leaped 4th into the street — to the extreme surprise & delight of some little children playing on the pavement, — the alarm of the thinking part of the neighborhood, & the eminent annoyance to his own ribs and existence. Our readers will doubtless drop a tear over this brutal & harmonious occurrence, a view of which, (sketched by our special artist who happened to be passing,) we present them[,] with our liveliest regards & compliments.



I have said that baby talk does more than normal talk. I would not have you think I just mean it disarms the reader. (Strange to speak of disarming when it makes so many people reach for their rocket launchers.) No: baby talk is a perspective. It’s like with those pictures that show how big the sun is by positioning a model of it on a tabletop next to a scaled model of the earth. Without the comparison, you wouldn’t see. Baby talk is like the earth in that picture. Genius is the sun.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.