I find “baby talk” to be very intriguing. I know, some people manage to interact with babies without ever using cutesy little words for everyday objects … but I am just not one of those people. In fact, the only words in Cantonese I know are the “baby” words for things like being full and my favourite childhood food, rice. My mom still uses those words with my kids and my Popo still uses them with me! “Are you bau bau? Do you want more faan faan? ” I should specify that most of the people in my family pronounce these words with a decidedly Canadian accent, so if I were to actually try to talk to a Cantonese-speaking baby, she’d probably have no clue about “fun fun” (rice) or being “bow bow” (full).
With or without the correct pronunciation, however, what we can observe is that the Chinese commonly form “baby talk” by doubling up a word. “Faan” is rice, but “faan faan” is how you say rice to a baby. In English we like to add a “y” sound to the end of words: “kitty,” “dolly,” “potty.” But we are no strangers to word-doubling either, with “pee pee” and “poo poo” being pretty popular terms amongst the zero to five crowd. When I moved to Quebec, I spoke “textbook French.” The first job I had in Montréal was babysitting, and that was how I learned to talk to babies in French. There was no chapter in my textbook for baby talk!
Now, I talk to my own babies in French. Since Cub was born in Montréal and we were very much surrounded by French speakers, I simply adopted a lot of French baby words into my own vocabulary, even while speaking to him mainly in English. (His Papa speaks to him in French.) Even now in Calgary, where we’ve been since he was two-and-a-half, he still uses most of these French “baby words” while he’s speaking English.
bisou = kiss
Sounds like “bee-zoo.” From the noun bise which means “a kiss on the cheek,” you’ll also hear this used as a way to say good-bye. In Quebec, you typically kiss a person on each cheek when saying goodbye, so people say “Bisous!” before exchanging their kisses. You would also put this at the end of a letter or email where in English you might write “Love.”
bobo = boo boo/owie
According to my trusty Little Bob¹, bobo is an onomatopoeia. The English equivalent, “boo-boo,” is “probably baby-talk alteration of boohoo, imitation of the sound of weeping” according to Merriam-Webster. If Cub falls, he will often tell me: “Check if there’s a bobo!” (He cannot stand to see a scrape on his own skin, so I have to check for him.)
coucou = peek-a-boo/hello
Sounds like “coo coo.” This word is an onomatopoeia, imitating the sound of a bird. Can you guess which one? Besides being what you say to a baby after you reveal your face from behind your hands, coucou is also very common in Quebec, both orally and in writing, to announce your presence or say hello.
dodo = sleep
Dodo comes from the verb dormir, which means “to sleep.” You might recognize it from “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez-vous?” This is a pretty frequent word at our house, usually in a sentence like: “It’s time to go dodo!” My father-in-law’s morning greeting is “Beau dodo?” (“Nice sleep?”)
doudou = blankey/lovie
Sounds like “doo doo.” This comes from the adjective “doux,” which means soft. Usually it refers to a special blanket or soft toy … you know, the kind you’re terrified of losing because your child will freak out if you do.
houp-là = oops-a-daisy
The way we say this sounds more like “oop-ah-lie,” and it’s just as cute as oops-a-daisy.
minou = kitty
Sounds like “me-new.” This comes from the word minet for kitten. (Although the more common way to say kitten is chaton.) Cub’s first word was chat (cat), which he pronounced in a very deep, very Québécois accent.
pitou = puppy
Sounds like “pee-two.” According to my research (and yes, I say that just like Dorothy-Anne from The Magic School Bus), this is a Québécois term. It is the only baby word on this list not to be found in Little Bob.¹
toutou = stuffie
Sounds like “two two.” It would appear that in France, toutou refers to a puppy. In Québec it is used more commonly to refer to a stuffed animal. At our house, we have a lot of stuffed animals, including ones from my childhood. Strange utterances thus occur: “Mom! I have your toutou too!” (If he has one of his stuffies and one of mine in his bed.) Cub also experienced a great deal of confusion when I explained that the poofy skirt worn by ballerinas is called a tutu. “So can toutous wear tutus, too?”
¹Little Bob is what my husband and I call our Petit Robert. The Petit Robert is THE French dictionary par excellence.