Does the pitch of your voice change when talking to animals or tiny, immature humans? This phenomenon, otherwise known as “baby talk,” is curious in that many of us engage in it, but don’t really know why.
A few days ago, I was sitting outside in a public area doing some work on my laptop. A few feet away from me sat a group of two women, a man, and a small girl. It was the child’s birthday (maybe turning 3 or 4?) and the adults were throwing her a mini celebration, which featured dinner, dessert, and a few presents. After opening one gift, the little girl darted about the area seemingly in her own world. Her mother continually yelled out to her saying that there were more gifts. The incredulous girl would run over for about 5 seconds, get very excited and then run off again. The mother and the other woman continued to loudly coax her back and guide her through the opening of the next gift (which turned out to be some sort of “Frozen” toy). This whole ritual stood out to me because of the shift from the slightly-louder-than-average adult voices to the howling, high-pitched, cooing tones toward the young girl. As someone just wanting some peace and quiet, the ringing falsetto of the two women that would pierce through every now and again was, mildly put, unwelcome.
In my opinion, the reason we use baby talk is because we are expected to use baby talk. This circular reasoning is founded on the fact that we have all seen adults engage in this manner of speech (in real life, on TV, etc.), but when asked, we cannot give a real answer as to why people talk this way. While the use of baby talk may seem obvious — we talk this way so young children can better understand us — it isn’t actually.
We use baby talk when speaking to our non-verbal companions — namely, babies and pets. Why do we do it? According to PsychCentral.com, we use baby talk to reinforce the emotional meaning behind our message. So, if we see an adult do something impressive like a standing backflip, we may emit a terse “wow, good job!” But, if our young child takes five whole steps on their own, we may release an elated “wooooow, goooood joooob!” with a toothy grin and friendly eyes to boot, so the child knows that the message is positive without understanding the words. While speaking to babies in this way expends a bit more energy, research shows that babies actually do prefer high-pitched voices. Similarly, in an animal study, it was found that dogs too respond better to the higher-pitched, exaggerated tones of baby talk. The caveat in this study, however, is that it is unclear whether this preference in dogs is learned or innate.
Circling back to the toddler’s birthday party, to me it now seems reasonable that the adults were speaking so theatrically to get and sustain the child’s attention. Regardless, I, the casual curmudgeon, would much prefer it if baby talk — when done in a public place — would remain “talk” (or baby “whisper”) rather than the baby “yells” that I had to endure.