Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An expectant father's defense of "motherese" (a.k.a., baby talk)

A recent post on the Slate Lexicon Valley blog (re-posted from elsewhere) questioned the use of "baby talk" (more academically called "motherese")—that is, the exaggerated speech employed by many when speaking to infants. The writer identified some ways in which it could be effective in distinguishing syllables to better allow the children to learn the different words, but he also took to task whether that really made much of a difference in the long run regarding the adult's eventual mastery of language. Babies certainly overhear adults speaking to each other in "regular" speech and it's a stretch to suggest babies aren't picking up on some of that. The only solid conclusion the writer could draw: To him, at least, it's definitely annoying.

Fair enough.

However, I think all of that misses the point of what "motherese" achieves.

I don't know how I'll speak to my child after he/she comes but I suspect my wife and I may do some of the "baby talk" vocal inflections when addressing our child directly. However, the reason won't be to help him/her learn the words (at least in that context); it will be to impart affection in tone.

The effect of that way of speaking is to seem as unthreatening as possible while emphasizing happiness. Obviously there are other ways of eschewing any potential for even the slightest menace in one's voice but that sing-song cadence seems to strike a chord (whether that's learned or innate is beyond what I'll pretend to be able to declare). Along with touch it seems it must help the child understand love.

There's a reason it's what becomes the basis for the "cutesy talk" employed by romantic couples, or even in mere platonic relationships where there's affection can it be part of the interaction (perhaps with nicknames).

My child will have a lifetime to learn language, but it does seem there's a finite window during these early years that allow for this conveying of affection through tone. It may or may not allow babies to glean words but they develop an association that conceivably may benefit them when they need a shorthand for expressing a specific type of affection (before it becomes embarrassing… for the child, at least).

Whether our child ends up traditionally masculine or feminine, or (more likely) somewhere in between, understanding that social convention (even if not an active participant) seems a worthwhile life skill.

Or maybe we're just old silly pants who will bring naught but shame upon our offspring. Apologies in advance, my child.


  1. Unfortunately with some adults I can only communicate on the "goo-goo da-da" level.

  2. I can see it now: that song by The Police playing in your nursery. [G]

  3. Probably keep Slayer off the nursery playlist, but the Police certainly might make the cut.


So, what do you think?