Motherese Spoken Here

by Translation Guy on June 7, 2010

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.

Hearing impaired baby’s reaction to cochlear implant being activated.


  1. Patricia says:

    According to Swell, hearing begins about 3 months before birth. A hearing impaired baby, who has not received hearing aid during the pregnancy obviously, would therefore obviously have missed that part of his hearing training.
    I was wondering how long the baby on the video has had his aid for, since he seems able to recognize his mother’s voice. Also wonder what is a baby initial reaction when exposed to noise for the first time.

    • Ken says:

      Patricia, my impression was that they were testing the implant for the first time, but I haven’t done any work on context or provenence of the video. Just speculation, but wouldn’t a hearing-impared baby awash inside his Mom, feel every sound she makes, from the grumbling of her stomach to the sound of her yakking on the cell? Music of the spheres!

  2. Those pictures are soooo cute!

  3. Buster Brown says:

    Motherese, an interesting word…

  4. … interesting indeed, also known as “parentese”, or “mommy talk”!

  5. CrookedPete says:

    What a cutie!

  6. Addison says:

    Not my term of choice (and by critics of gender stereotyping with respect to the term motherese) as I am a stay at home father. Also, all caregivers, not only parents, use distinct speech patterns and vocabulary when talking to young children.

  7. Is that you Ken?

    • Ken says:

      Oh Isabella, I wish it was me. I miss the sound of my mother’s voice.

  8. Here’s a list of keywords for baby talk:
    baba (blanket, bottle or baby)
    beddy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
    binkie (pacifier (dummy) or blanket)
    blankie (blanket)
    boo-boo (wound or bruise)
    bubby (brother)
    bubba (brother)
    dada (dad, daddy)
    didee (diaper)
    din-din (dinner)
    doedoes (In South African English, the equivalent of beddy-bye)
    num nums (food/dinner)
    ickle (little (chiefly British))
    icky (disgusting)
    jammies (pajamas)
    nana (grandmother)
    oopsie-daisy (accident)
    owie (wound or bruise)
    passie or paci (pacifier (dummy))
    pee-pee (urinate or penis)
    pewie (smelling bad)
    poo-poo or doo-doo (defecation)
    potty (toilet)
    sissy (sister)
    sleepy-bye (go to bed, sleeping, bedtime)
    stinky (defecation)
    tummy (stomach)
    wawa (water)
    wee-wee (urination or penis)
    widdle (urine (chiefly British))
    widdle (little (chiefly American))
    wuv (love)
    yucky (disgusting)
    yum-yum (meal time)
    mama (mother)
    uppie (wanting to be picked up)

  9. Jenny says:

    I use baby talk with my wife…derogatory baby talk

  10. Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

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