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!

Gary Stone/Getty Images
The Doctor Who Modernized Royal Births—in the 1970s
Gary Stone/Getty Images
Gary Stone/Getty Images

When Prince William eventually ascends to the English throne, he’ll be the first British monarch ever born in a hospital. And he has a man named George Pinker to thank for that.

Royal births have always been fraught affairs due to the thorny issues of birthright and succession. Throughout history, English royal women were expected to give birth in rooms filled with spectators and witnesses—in part to avoid a pretender to the throne being switched with the royal baby at birth.

That made childbirth a grueling ceremony for queens, many of whom had to give birth to stillborn or dying children in the company of scores of strangers. In 1688, after 11 tragic attempts to produce an heir to James II’s throne, Mary of Modena gave birth in front of an audience of 67 people. (It was even worse for Marie Antoinette, who gave birth in 1778 in front of so many people the onlookers nearly crushed her.) And even after births became more private affairs, archbishops and officials attended them as late as 1936.

Of course, doctors have long been part of that crowd. The royal household—the group of support staff that helps royals at their various residences—has included physicians for hundreds of years, who have often been called upon to perform various gynecological duties for royal women. They have frequently been dispatched to serve other family members, too, especially those giving birth to important heirs.

Even when hospitals became popular places for childbirth at the turn of the last century, English royals continued having kids at home in their palaces, castles, and houses. Elizabeth II was delivered via Caesarean section in 1926 at her grandmother’s house in London. When she became queen, her royal surgeon gynecologists recommended she deliver her children at home, bringing in equipment to turn the space into a maternity ward.

Yet it was one of her gynecologists, John Peel, who ended up changing his tune on delivering children in hospitals, and in the 1970s he published an influential report that recommended all women do so. When he stepped down in 1973, the queen’s new royal gynecologist, George Pinker, insisted the royals get in line, too.

Pinker was different from his predecessors. For one, he skipped out on a potential career in opera to practice medicine. He had been offered a contract with an opera company, but when asked to choose between music and medicine, the choice was clear. Instead, he stayed involved with music—becoming assistant concert director at the Reading Symphony Orchestra and vice president of the London Choral Society—while maintaining his medical career.

He was also the youngest doctor ever to practice as royal surgeon gynecologist—just 48 when he was appointed. He supported controversial medical advances like in vitro fertilization. And he insisted that his patients’ welfare—not tradition—dictate royal births.

“It is very important for mothers to accept modern medical assistance and not to feel guilty if they need epidural or a Caesarean,” he told an interviewer. Pinker recommended that pregnant women lead as normal a life as possible—no easy task for royals whose every move was spied on and picked apart by the public. In fact, the doctor being anywhere near the queen or her family, even when he was not there to treat a pregnant woman, was seen as a sign that a royal was pregnant.

When Princess Diana delivered her first son, it was at a royal room in a hospital. “Most people marveled at the decision to have the royal baby in such surroundings rather than Buckingham Palace,” wrote The Guardian’s Penny Chorlton. Turns out the surroundings were pretty plush anyway: Diana delivered in her very own wing of the hospital.

Pinker served as the queen’s royal gynecologist for 17 years, delivering nine royal babies in all, including Prince William and Prince Harry. All were born at hospitals. So were William’s two children—under supervision of the royal gynecologist, of course.

What the First Year of Life Looks Like Through the Eyes of a Baby

A baby's vision undergoes a series of significant developments during its first year of life, and these developments have been visually replicated, month by month, in a recent video from Tech Insider.

The unfortunate news for any parent who has ever felt like their newborn was gazing into their eyes: Until the third month, babies can't actually identify facial features, which include eyes and mouths. Also, they can't focus their eyes on any subject more than 10 inches from their face for the first three months.

At the 6-month mark, babies are finally able to construct a 3D view of the world—something that later comes in handy at 9 months, when their eye-hand coordination is finally developed enough to grab hold of objects.

Though humans' eyes aren't fully developed until age 2, babies do have a leg up on adults in one area: A 2016 study found that babies between the ages of 3 and 4 months old can see slight differences in images caused by changes in illumination, while adults cannot.

Watch the video from Tech Insider below:

[h/t: Tech Insider]


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