The Frontal Cortex

Crying Babies

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).

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    November 6, 2009

    Or maybe there’s a heritable aspect as to the phenotypic potential of our communicative apparatus. Intonation having been an adaptive option in a particular environment.

    Or not.

  2. #3 EzraSF
    November 6, 2009

    Since English is descended from German with lots of French cognates, do English babies display both?

    Heritable aspect could be tested by noting minorities common in both countries.

  3. #4 Chicago Interpreter
    November 7, 2009

    This is an amazing discovery. This only proves that they can hear us even while they are still in her mother’s womb. Then it is really true that we can read them good books and let them listen to good music even before they are born. Thank you for this post.

  4. #5 gines
    November 8, 2009

    What it seems to us a very short interval, for babies is an eternity. It is very possible they are trying to reproduce
    the sounds they have heard, since they created their own auditory system in the first weeks of life inside the womb. A pretty experiment would be using a group of pregnant women from the same place. Consisting to put a belt with some melodies to the first group and no melodies to the second control group. And then making same measurements with same technique as the german study. And latter, jeje, betting on television, so people give money for the experiment. I bet that the cryings will be different.

  5. #6 Cheri
    November 10, 2009

    So many interesting connections can be made in life. I just saw an amusing episode of comedian Wanda Sykes’s new show in which her friend said he had the “super power” of being able to tell if a baby was black just by hearing its cry. It’s fascinating to hear that there might just be some science behind that claim. Haha!

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