This is absolutely fascinating, yet another reminder that the structure of language infects everything. Here’s Nell Greenfieldboyce, at NPR:
The distinctive sounds of a newborn’s first cries may be influenced by the mother tongue of its parents.
A new study of over a thousand recorded cries from 30 French newborns and 30 German newborns found differences in the cries’ melody patterns. French cries tended to have a rising melody, while the German cries tended to have a falling melody.
The finding suggests that newborns just a few days old may already be trying to imitate the prevailing intonation patterns of the language they heard while still in the womb.
The moral is that, even before we’re born, we are deeply influenced by the syllables and grammars that surround us. The words are still meaningless, and yet they leave a meaningful mark on the brain. This reminds me of that great Wallace Stevens quote: “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.” Babies, it turns out, are also corrupting the silence with a kind of speech. From the moment our brain is made, we start to express ourselves in the terms and forms of language, so that even the most instinctive utterance – the scream of a newborn – is still shaped by culture.
UPDATE: Important qualifications from the always lucid Language Log:
This is a really interesting and suggestive study, which needs to be replicated to be entirely convincing. It finds a fairly large difference in the distribution of pitch and amplitude profiles of French and German neonates, with the French babies tending to produce cries with later peaks that the German babies. The effect size in the reported data is a large one (d=1.0).