When ‘big’ starts with /p/ and ‘pig’ starts with /b/

I’m writing because of another little language acquisition oddity. I’m basically curious to hear if anyone else has known a kid who’s done the thing that my kid is doing. Let me say off the bat: I’m not worried about this at all. I just find it interesting, and frankly perplexing.

My daughter’s now 3;7. (Three years, seven months.) As a family we do that metalinguistic thing that people do when they’re priming kids for learning to spell where we talk about what letters and sounds are at the beginning of words. You know, like…

“‘Hat’ starts with…?”

“Hat. /hə hə hə/.”

“Yes! Aitch. /hə hə hæt/.”

Lately this language-loving kid has been designing her own knock-knock jokes around a similar idea, breaking down words into the onset consonant (always a consonant, sometimes consonant plus schwa) and the rest of the word. Here’s an awww-so-adorable example from half an hour ago:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“/lə/ who?”


The oddity is that, for months now, like, since whenever we started doing this kind of thing, my child has consistently — without fail — said that words beginning with /b/ begin with /p/, and vice versa. So she says that “Paula” starts with “B” and “Ben” starts with “P”. (Apologies for the lack of narrow transcription, but fwiw we’re just dealing with your general American English-ish p’s and b’s here, e.g., /p/ is strongly aspirated, /b/ doesn’t have any strong pre-voicing).

If you have at least intro level linguistics you’ll know that she’s reversing what might be basically called a voicing contrast (although phonetically that’s not exactly right; the Wikipedia link has a pretty good summary of why). So, what about /t d/ or /s z/ or other pairs with a voicing contrast? They seem fine; exactly as you’d expect. It’s just /p b/ that always get switched. For example, here’s what happened a few seconds after the previous example (note that she was looking at my ears at the time, and she’s been really wanting earrings)…

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“/bə/ who?”

“Pierced ears!”

This is a made up example but it represents the way she last long approached the basic game mentioned above:

“What letter does ‘big’ start with?”

“/bə bə bə/ P!”

“What letter does ‘pig’ start with?”

“/pə pə pə/ B!”

So this is a different thing, obviously, than if her responses had been “/pə pə pə/ P” and “/bə bə bə/ B” — maybe there are multiple things going on here, one about the sounds, and one about the letters. (Note: this is yet another reason why I do not do acquisition research!) She can currently recognize and name the capital letters P and B but she can’t write them and doesn’t talk about them as much as other letters. Neither P nor B start off any of her names nor ‘Mom(my)’ nor ‘Dad(dy)’ and so frankly we just don’t talk about them very much.

I think what gets me about this is how totally regular the pattern is. Where did this come from? Why only the bilabial plosives? I would love to hear your guesses. As I mentioned above, I’m not at all concerned about this in terms of her future spelling ability. She’s in Gaelic Medium Education and they don’t (need to) learn how to spell in English for a long time yet.

gaining balance


About vocalised

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1 Response to When ‘big’ starts with /p/ and ‘pig’ starts with /b/

  1. Nice piece! See you soon. Love Melissa

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