Finding Our Tongues

by Dean Falk

Mothers the world over use a special language to talk to their babies; it’s called Motherese. While it usually contains words from the mother’s native language, the basic structure of motherese is the same everywhere. The mother talks to her baby in a fragmented style, using single words or pairs of words. The interaction between mother and infant is not conversation, but neither is it arbitrary. It is instead the means by which babies learn language.

Ms. Falk presents a thorough discussion of motherese and its function. There’s a wealth of information here about exactly how and when babies reach the various stages of language development; while much of this is well-established, Ms. Falk’s contribution is to demonstrate that the baby doesn’t learn language in isolation. The interaction between mother and baby is central to the process of learning language.
Ms. Falk offers the hypothesis that motherese developed as a response to the changes in the mother-baby relationship that arose when early hominids lost their body hair. This deprived infants of their means of clinging to mother; instead, the mother had to carry the baby. This change created a new problem: the mother had to put the baby down in order to gather food. Unsurprisingly, babies responded to this apparent abandonment by screaming bloody murder. After all, if you are a hominid baby and you really are lost, the best way to signal your location to others is to make a loud noise. 

But this created a new problem: a yowling baby attracts predators. Mothers don’t want the baby to advertise their presence to nearby lions, tigers, or bears. So how does the mother keep the kid quiet while still keeping her hands free to dig roots, gather nuts and berries, and so forth? Ms. Falk hypothesizes that mothers hit upon the expedient of making soothing cooing noises to their infants; this served to reassure baby that mother, while perhaps not visible, was still close by. From there, the mother’s cooing noises became more meaningful and eventually blossomed into language.

Thus, Ms. Falk concludes that women invented language. While I accept the basic concept of motherese arising from the need to keep babies calm, I do not accord it the importance that Ms. Falk gives it. In the first place, she overlooks another expedient that probably played a greater role: the rise of allomothers: women who act as substitute mothers while the real mother does something else. Allomothering has been observed in most primates, so there’s no question that hominids practiced it as well. Indeed, allomothering is the only explanation for an otherwise insoluble problem of human evolution: why do females continue to live after menopause? A woman who has exhausted her reproductive capacity can no longer contribute to the gene pool, so it would seem that menopause should be a fatal condition. But in fact, such women played a crucial role in human evolution: they became grandmothers and provided allomothering support to their daughters. It was safer and more efficient for baby to stay at camp with Granny than for Mom to carry baby out into the wild. Granny’s age reduced her food-gathering capacity, but she provided an important service as an allomother.

This pulls the rug out from underneath Ms. Falk’s hypothesis. If Granny took care of the kid, then Mom didn’t bring baby along with her and would have no need to keep baby calm, and hence would not have developed language.

Nevertheless, the book contains much useful information and so I recommend it to those who want to know more about motherese.