When a staff member brings a baby into the offices of Scientific American, a small crowd inevitably forms around the infant, and although the onlookers all have rather different personalities and mannerisms, they tend to talk to the baby in the same singsong way. Vowels are lingered over, phrases are repeated in high-pitched voices, and questions carry exaggerated inflections. Sound familiar? This is motherese, the distinctive speech that human adults across the globe instinctively use when addressing babies. And according to a new theory, it holds a key to the emergence of language.
In a paper slated for the August Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Florida State University physical anthropologist Dean Falk proposes that just as motherese forms the scaffold for language acquisition during child development, so, too, did it underpin the evolution of language. Such baby talk itself originated, she posits, as a response to two other hallmarks of human evolution: upright walking and big brains.
This article was originally published with the title Baby Talk Beginnings.