Onomatopoeia in Infant Directed Speech

The study in a sentence

This study examined the acoustic phonetic properties of onomatopoeic words (quack) produced by caregivers to babies and found that they were much more salient than their conventional counterparts (duck), making them more easily learnable for babies.

The question

Onomatopoeia make up a large proportion of the early words produced by children (20-40% in different studies and different languages), but they are often left out of the analysis as unimportant.

This study looks turns things around to look at the input to babies - that is, the speech that they hear from the adults around them. The study investigates the details of how onomatopoeia are produced in recordings of adults talking to babies, to see whether these words may stand out more to the babies.

Key concept

If a word or phrase is prosodically salient it has been pronounced with one or more prosodic features that make it stand out from the surrounding talk to the hearer. Prosody refers to phonetic features that are realised across stretches of speech (such as syllables, words and phrases) rather than on an individual speech sound (such as a consonant or vowel).

In English, a syllable can be made to stand out within a word by making the syllable longer and/or louder (word stress). A word can be made to stand out within a phrase by producing the word with a pitch contour with a clear shape - such as a fall or rise - as well as by expanding the pitch range or using higher pitch on that word (sentence stress).

Do onomatopoeic words stand out in infant-directed speech?

Methods: analysing pitch

Speech analysis software can be used to visualise the shape of the pitch contour on an utterance.

Watch this video by Richard Ogden to learn how to perform some simple pitch contour analysis.


The video uses Praat software which is freely available to download. If you want to try using Praat yourself there are a series of tutorials that you can work through starting from basic tasks such as how to open up sound files for analysis.

Pitch contour of HORSE produced in Infant Directed Speech


Figure 5c from: Laing, C. E., Vihman, M., & Keren-Portnoy, T. (2017). How salient are onomatopoeia in the early input? A prosodic analysis of infant-directed speech. Journal of Child Language, 44(5), 1117–1139. download

The answer

Onomatopoeic words, such as boing and woof, were found to be acoustically more salient than their conventional counterparts (e.g. ball and dog) in several ways. Onomatopoeic words are often:

  • Higher in pitch
  • Wider in pitch range
  • Longer in duration
  • Reduplicated (woof woof)
  • Spoken in isolation

These prosodic features are not unique to onomatopoeia. In fact, they are commonly used in speech when caregivers address infants, capturing their attention and facilitating language learning.

The finding that caregivers produce onomatopoeia with even more exaggerated features may be a reason why these words are among those acquired the earliest by infants.

Classroom activities

Lead-in task

Thinking what infant-directed speech sounds like (and why)

Extension task

Working with Talkbank transcripts to identify examples of these features

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Catherine Laing's slides from the 2019 workshop

You can hear the example in slide 3 via the Talkbank website [the example starts on line 868]

Meet the authors

Catherine Laing, Marilyn Vihman & Tamar Keren-Portnoy


Catherine did her MA & PhD at York and is now a Lecturer at Cardiff University.

Read the paper

Laing, C. E., Vihman, M., & Keren-Portnoy, T. (2017). How salient are onomatopoeia in the early input? A prosodic analysis of infant-directed speech. Journal of Child Language, 44(5), 1117–1139. Download accepted manuscript.