Anthropologists Show That We Are All Suckers for Baby Talk
It happens every time we meet a baby, anyone’s baby. Suddenly our brains are taken over by some other person with a different voice, one that goes up a few octaves and comes out in a sing-song lilt to produce some of the silliest sentences on earth: “Waaadda a cuuttee liddle baby! Aren’t youuuu the sweeeetest thingy in the world? Are you the sweeetest little booy in the world? Is this the cutest little girrrl ever?” And how many times have you stood up, embarrassed, after leaning over some small fry and babbling on like this because you sound like a complete idiot? But if another baby was brought into the room, I guarantee you would do it all over again because, it seems, everybody around the world uses that voice with tiny humans — we just can’t help ourselves.
In a recent, and I have to say beautifully done, study on how people around the world talk and sing to babies published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, 43 researchers made 1,615 recordings of 410 people as they spoke or sang to either babies or adults. These recordings happened in 21 different locations around the world. More interesting, the researchers made sure they sampled people living in all sorts of lifeways; they recorded subjects in urban settings, rural villages, and what the authors call “small scale societies” which would include people of small communities such as nomadic herders and hunters and gatherers. In other words, this research crossed not only geographical space but also cultural space to get a variety of people in a variety of settings.
They analyzed these clips for acoustic variables which underscored that the style of speech and song projected toward babies were similar no matter the location. Adults around the world use a higher pitch and greater range of pitches when talking to babies and articulate more contrasting vowel sounds (let’s call them “exaggerated vowels”) than they do with adults. And that kind of talk is more engaging and soothing to babies than if we spoke to them in the more acoustically rough manner we use with other adults. When singing to babies, people in all cultures also adjust their singing and they frequently use sounds that are calming, although such soothing appeared in adult-directed songs too. But as the researchers point out, singing is usually a social activity and so it might have been more awkward for the subject adults to be recorded singing solo. More likely, a relaxing song is also a way to calm a fussy adult as we all know from listening to our favorite tunes during times of trouble.
Overall, the most surprising result is the general one — that all people talk and sing to babies in a similar way no matter the language and no matter the location or the culture.
Then, the researchers cleverly put those recordings on a website and invited the international public to listen to a random clip and decide if the talk or song in a language they typically did not understand had been directed at an adult or an infant. The 51,065 people from 187 countries who judged those clips were resoundingly able to determine when talking were directed at a baby rather than an adult, and more often than not, also able to judge if a song was directed at a baby as well. Keep in mind that listeners didn’t understand the content of the chat or the song, only how it sounded. In other words, naive subjects with no knowledge of a particular language or culture, without any visual reference of the speaker or the recipient, could easily tell that people shift their voices when communicating with babies.
Altogether, this project shows that across cultures and societies, adults change their voices when they talk or sing to babies, and anyone listening to a comparative recording can tell the difference. There are, of course, culturally shaped differences in the worlds or sounds used, but the point is that the way we talk to babies is quite different from the way we talk to each other as adults. This baby-centered vocal shift is therefore a universal pattern of human behavior and communication which leads to a much bigger question — why do we all do this?
Many anthropologists are interested in figuring out human nature, meaning a supposed suite of behaviors that we all share because of our common genetic blueprint. Evolutionary theory suggests that if a behavior or pattern of behaviors proves to be universal, then it must have some sort of critical advantage to become part of our inherited genetic make-up. It must have, over the millennia, had some “adaptive value” for our species. Adaptive value (also known as a selective advantage or an evolutionary adaptation) is an academic phrase that means that the behavior in question must have, in some way, helped that organism stay alive and pass on genes. In this case, the question can be formed as, “What might speaking and singing in a different voice to babies have to do with reproductive success, meaning keeping the baby alive so it can pass on genes?”
The researchers point out that the high pitch singsong we direct is soothing to them, and more often than not, such vocalizations can calm a fussy baby, and maybe that’s the point. Because they cannot yet talk, babies fidget and cry to signal that something is wrong, but that signal can sometimes go awry. Obviously, a screaming baby is more at risk of inciting aggression from an adult than one that is easily soothed and quiet. A noisy baby also puts the whole group in danger of discovery by predators and hostile neighbors. And so, everyone wants a fidgety baby to calm down and it looks like we have evolved the skills to make that happen.
Talking and singing to a baby is the first step on the road to learning how to talk. After all, babies are not born speaking, but they do come with the ability to acquire and use language in a meaningful way which involves speaking and hearing, as they grow up. All the one-way chat and songs must be part of that learning process.
Also, previous research on infant-adult behavior has shown that human infants are born so neurologically unfinished that they need at least one committed caretaker, someone to feed and clean them, someone to hold and cuddle them when physically or emotionally dysregulated but don’t yet have the cognitive ability to sort that all out. Evolution has favored attentive and caring responses from fully grown humans (and from older child caretakers) to connect the baby into an interactive dyad that keeps the baby alive. In fact, the acoustic analyses of this research showed that when adults speak to babies their voices come out more musical, which babies find both soothing and engaging. And babies watch closely and respond with their gurgles or hand gestures. What we see in adults talking and singing like fools and babies being entertained and calmed is an expression of the entwined dyad provided by evolution to keep the highly dependent human infant alive. As a famous pediatrician once said, “There is not just a baby, there is a baby and someone.”
And so, there’s no reason to be embarrassed next time you lean in close and goo-goo like a fool at a baby. You are just acting naturally, engaging with a new member of your species, initiating them into the buzzing world of human speech and song, and indoctrinating them into the social interconnection that is vital for their survival.