“Babies learn to speak by listening. And all of us all over the world help them, modulating the sounds of the quicksilver flow of speech in fundamentally the same way. Put simply, when we speak to infants we speak in a very funny style. When confronted with a baby, adults produce a signal that is raised about an octave in pitch and slows down very carefully and creates these swooping contours. It’s not a job interview voice. It’s a very distinct voice that’s fetching to a baby. Why would every person on the planet do it if it’s not important?”
“Motherese” is what Dean Falk calls it. Falk is a professor of anthropology at Florida State University. Motherese is the “spoken music” whose melody exaggerates the “statistical and prosodic regularities in language input that lead to phonetic and word learning.”
Falk claims that motherese is the key to the evolution of human language. In her new book, Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language, she claims that the first protolanguage evolved from hominins going all goo-goo and ga-ga over their itsy-bitsy babies.
Unlike the babies of more prehensile-endowed primates, these little hominin babies could not grasp their mothers and periodically had to be laid aside so that the mothers could forage for food. By using vocal communication, the mothers could still maintain contact with their babies. Falk calls it the “putting the baby down” hypothesis.
Amazing. Baby talk could be a matter of life and death out on the savanna.
Ange Mlinko says, “The idea that language evolved to mend a rift that caused a mother and infant to become prematurely part of each other’s ‘external world’ is not so very distant from the Orpheus myth, wherein the trauma of separation from Eurydice becomes the genesis of poetry. In the end, Orpheus’ dismembered head babbles its song down a stream. Babbling, of course, is the precursor to language and―in one of the most intriguing facts in the book―so is crying a precursor to babbling. Researchers have identified ‘melody arcs’ in infant crying, prosodic patterns that get more complex as the baby grows. If loss, song and language are truly intertwined, Falk’s is a new twist on an old myth.”
Babbling dismembered heads! Jeez. Those crazy Greeks and their myths. I can’t end on a muffin-choker like that. Something more upbeat. Cute babies! You can’t go wrong with cute babies….
Check out the video link below. The little guy sucking on his pacifier is hearing impaired―at least until they turn on his new cochlear implant (that’s when the pacifier drops out of his mouth). He’s just gone high-band with his mom. His first experience with motherese shows the power of language. What a blessing.