Why Do We Use the Same Voice to Talk to Babies and Dogs?


Hiiiiiiieeee! Who’s a little sweetie? You, yes, you are!

Sound familiar? Even if you yourself have never talked this way to anyone, you’ve probably heard someone do it. But if you try to picture who’s on the receiving end of this interaction, is it a baby or is it a dog?

It could be either one. Linguists have studied the characteristics of the way people talk to babies and to pets and found a great deal of overlap. The features of both infant-directed speech (also known as motherese) and pet-directed speech include swooping intonation contours, higher pitch, and slow articulation.

Why do people use these features? In the case of infant-directed speech, researchers believe they may be useful for encouraging language development in the child by highlighting important contrasts between sounds and holding attention. Our impulse to speak this way to babies may have a biological basis stemming from an evolutionary advantage for behaviors that promote language acquisition. However, not all cultures use this type of infant-directed speech, and babies in cultures without it do still learn language. Humans learn language whether or not anyone talks to them in a sing-song, high-pitched tone.

So baby talk might not actually help babies learn to talk. But when babies do start to talk, using words and sentences, caregivers begin to drop the exaggerated tone. The adult tendency to sing-song seems to be triggered not so much by the urge to instruct, but by the perception that the person we’re talking to doesn’t know our language.

The perception seems to underlie why we also talk to dogs in this voice. We know they’re not going to learn to talk, but we can’t help going into baby talk mode. And since, while they can learn to understand various things, they never start using words and sentences, our baby talk habits persist.

A recent study by Tobey Ben-Aderet and colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that people use high-pitched, dog-directed speech patterns even while reading sentences to pictures of dogs. While the features were a bit more exaggerated for pictures of puppies than for adult dogs, they were used across the age range. It was not a response to “babyness,” per se.

They then played the recorded sentences to dogs over a speaker and recorded their reactions. While puppies did respond more strongly to dog-directed speech patterns, adult dogs showed no preference for it. This may be because adult dogs are more responsive to people they know, and the recorded speakers were unfamiliar, but it may also suggest, according to the report, "that pet-directed speech exploits perceptual biases which are present in puppies but not in adult dogs.” Baby talk may be somehow functionally useful, but only for puppies.

Usefulness isn’t everything, though. The authors conclude:

"This study suggests that dogs may appear as mostly non-verbal companions to humans who consequently modify their speech features as they do when speaking to young infants. Such a speaking strategy seems to be employed in other contexts where the speaker feels, consciously or unconsciously, that the listener may not fully master language or has difficulty in speech intelligibility, such as during interactions with elderly people, or when speaking to a linguistic foreigner."

We don’t talk to dogs like babies because we see them as babies, or even necessarily because they're cute, but because we see them as having a harder time understanding us. Dog-directed speech features may actually help them understand us, but even if it doesn't, we'll probably keep on using it. Won't we! Won't we, baby! Yes, we will! We will! MWAH!

March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

From Camreigh to Kayzleigh: Parents Invented More Than 1000 New Baby Names Last Year

Look out Mercedes, Bentley, and Royce—there's a new car-inspired name in town. The name Camreigh was recorded for the first time in the U.S. last year, according to Quartz’s take on data released by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The name was given to 91 babies in 2017, making it the most popular of the 1100 brand-new names that cropped up last year. However, the Social Security Administration only listed names that had been given to at least five babies in 2017, so it's possible that some of the names had been invented before 2017.

An alternate spelling, Kamreigh, also appeared for the first time last year, as did Brexleigh, Kayzleigh, Addleigh, Iveigh, Lakeleigh, and Riverleigh. Swapping out “-y” and “-ey” for “-eigh” at the end of a name has been a growing trend in recent years, and in 20 years or so, the workforce will be filled with Ryleighs, Everleighs, and Charleighs—names that all appeared on a list of the 500 most popular names in 2017.

Following Camreigh, the second most popular new name, appearing 58 times, was Asahd. Meaning “lion” in Arabic, Asahd was popularized in 2016 when DJ Khaled gave his son the name. The American DJ is now attempting to trademark the moniker, which is an alternate spelling of Asad and Assad.

Other names that were introduced for the first time include Iretomiwa (of Nigerian origin) and Tewodros (Ethiopian). The name Arjunreddy (given 12 times) possibly stems from the 2017 release of the Indian, Telugu-language film Arjun Reddy, whose title character is a surgeon who spirals out of control when he turns to alcohol and drugs.

Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the fact that 11 babies were named Cersei in 2017, or, as Quartz puts it, "11 fresh-faced, sinless babies were named after the manipulative, power-hungry, incestuous, helicopter parent-y, backstabbing character from Game of Thrones."

Below are the top 20 most popular new names in 2017.

1. Camreigh
2. Asahd
3. Taishmara
4. Kashdon
5. Teylie
6. Kassian
7. Kior
8. Aaleiya
9. Kamreigh
10. Draxler
11. Ikeni
12. Noctis
13. Sayyora
14. Mohana
15. Dakston
16. Knoxlee
17. Amunra
18. Arjunreddy
19. Irtaza
20. Ledgen

[h/t Quartz]


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