Intimate Swift letters reproduced "baby talk"

Fri Jan 28, 2011 5:19am EST
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - New analysis of a series of love letters from Anglo-Irish satirist and "Gulliver's Travels" author Jonathan Swift to two women shows that the strange, juvenile language he employed reflects the way babies talk.

Abigail Williams of St Peter's College, Oxford University, who has been editing the early 18th century letters which constitute "The Journal to Stella," said her own three-year-old son had helped her solve some of the mysteries of Swift's text.

"If I am really struggling to understand a phrase, I ask my three-year-old son -- who has an excellent lisp -- to say it aloud for me," she said.

Williams argued that the letters could only fully be understood if they were read out loud, because Swift developed a special baby language with which to address the two women.

In this "little language" he attempted to imitate the speech of small children by changing the consonants in familiar words.

For example, he wrote: "I expect a Rettle vely soon; & that MD is vely werr, and so Nite dee MD" which translates as "I expect a letter very soon, and that my dears are very well, and so night dear my dears."

Alternatively, he wrote: "I am sorry for poo poo ppt, pray walk hen oo can," meaning "I am sorry for poor poor poppet, pray walk when you can." The bizarre style appears in letters from Swift to "MD," or "my dears," meaning Esther Johnson ("Stella") and her companion Rebecca Dingley.

According to Oxford University, the author and clergyman usually met the women together, and his contemporaries claimed that he was never once in his life alone in a room with Stella.   Continued...