The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
Imagine you’re strolling through a park and you overhear a middle-aged couple cooing over each other, doting over their “wittle sugar pwum” and “baby doll.”
“Ewwww,” you might reflexively think.
Baby talk is cute when grown-ups dote on babies. But when adults converse with each other? Not so much.
Yet in my work as a communication sciences and disorders researcher, I’ve come across studies showing that as many as two-thirds of couples use romantic baby talk.
It may sound strange and elicit cringes, but it’s no disorder.
So why do couples do it?
First, it’s important to understand what, exactly, I mean by “baby talk.” It’s not how babies talk to one another. It’s the exaggerated pitch, tempo and intonation that parents use when talking to their little ones – what linguists call “motherese” or “parentese.”
According to speech and hearing expert Patricia Kuhl, this special style of speaking facilitates social interactions with babies, helping them learn how to communicate. And it isn’t a phenomenon just in English. Speakers in every culture and every language will change their pitch and exaggerate their intonation when communicating with babies.
Research has shown that this style of speaking actually triggers the release of neurotransmitters that motivate infants to learn.
However, in the case of romance, this style of speech is less about learning and more about affection.
According to the affection exchange theory, which was proposed by the communication researcher Kory Floyd, specific vocal behaviors signal affection. These include the use of a high pitch, exaggerated intonation and a soft voice—traits that just so happen to overlap with the way most people talk to babies.
But there’s another side to the phenomenon: the formation of a special linguistic landscape that’s walled off from the rest of the world, a space for couples to express themselves that’s free from the complexities and customs of routine adult conversations.
The use of “idiosyncratic,” or personalized, communication is an important aspect of close friendships and romantic relationships. A bystander listening in might be flummoxed. But to the couple, it’s a sign of their bond—a boundary that sets them apart from everyone else. Pet names like “sweet pie” and “nugget” are a part of this, and they’ve been shown to signal greater relationship satisfaction among couples.
So while adults literally going gaga for each other might sound peculiar, it’s a hallmark of humanity.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
I have a visceral reaction to baby talk.
Recently, I was helping out at a school party in one of my kids’ classrooms. As my son and I were stringing Cheerios and Fruit Loops onto yarn for necklaces, I heard the mom next to me address her child in a high-pitched voice: “Do you wanna make this cute widdle necklace? Ohhh Kayyyy! Get the stringy and…ohhh nooo. Let’s not eat the Chee-wee-ohs until we Awl Done!”
Good God. I felt a blood vessel burst in my temple. Trying desperately to hurry my son and his buddy along in their stringing, I couldn’t help but entertain visions of cramming the entire box of Fruit Loops into her mouth just to MAKE. IT. STOP.
Although most of the time, I want my boys to stay little forever, I draw the line at baby talk. Even when they were babies and toddlers, my husband and I did not “dumb down” our language to communicate with them. I’ve always believed that explaining things to them in simple terms allows mutual respect to grow and flow.
Furthermore, as they get older, it avoids setting expectations that they can get away with behaviors because they are “just so cute and little.” I think that it’s just as important to model appropriate language as admitting that we adults make mistakes and have feelings.
Believe me, my kids are well versed in “Mom is frustrated and needs some space for a bit.” Or my telling them, “I’m sorry, I should not have yelled. I made a mistake and next time I will take deep breaths instead of yelling.”
We’re all human, after all.
Personal Preference or Actually Detrimental?
There are conflicting research studies out there on the effect of using baby talk on the development of children. On one hand, some studies show that using baby talk with infants can aid them in language development. However, it seems that it’s more about the pitch and timbre of the parents’ voice than butchering and “babying” the words. I remember reading that using a sing-song voice could help babies to form their vocabulary, so I would sing, “I’m changing your diaper now!” or “Here we go to the kitchen!”
Other studies suggest that baby talk can hinder language development in children over the age of 1. This study reinforces the point that avoiding baby talk and speaking clearly to children is more beneficial.
Many grade school-aged children can regress into using baby talk. It can be for a variety of reasons, namely in an attempt to seek attention if they are feeling lonely, overlooked, etc. When this happens, I tell the children I work with that I’d love to speak with them once they use their [insert age here] voice. And, “Thank you. It’s so much easier to understand what you’re saying when you use your every day voice.” After that, we can try to process the feelings that are going on underneath the baby voice.
I recently discovered a great parenting resource in this website: https://bouncebackparenting.com/. They also happen to have a great article on handling baby talk in older children without shaming or ridicule. You can read it HERE.
No Mommy Here
My visceral reaction to baby talk could be partly genetic. My mom hated baby talk probably even more than I do. For instance, she never let us call her “Mommy” because she said that it sounded too whiny and babyish. I get it. Although I never asked my kids not to call me Mommy, they naturally used Mama as their first words, and now they’ve both graduated to Mom. Sometimes my youngest even likes to spell it out: “Hi, M-O-M.”
Yes, I’m Judging You
I’ve actually witnessed a couple of friends over the years that use baby talk with their husbands. When I heard them in action, I fought the urge to both vomit and question their sanity. Keep it in the bedroom, please. Admittedly, I don’t even use pet names with my husband that often. Sure, I’ll use the occasional “honey” or “babe” and he does call me Princess…BECAUSE I AM. (Haha). Actually, maybe I should make a case for “Queen” now that I’m more on the maturing side of life. Anyway, I do call my kids by pet names, but I refuse to use a baby talk voice.
Except for with our dog. He needs it. His tail never wags faster than when I get home and love on him: “Oh, my sweet little Frankie…who’s a good boy? Is it you? Yes, you are! You’re the best boy in the world!”
That’s the only exception and I stand by it. Because he is 90 years old and he deserves it.
This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2019
To express ourselves with sweet words, with soft tonal effects and games of words scrawled in diminutives, beyond a simple behavior, implies human nature and is almost a cerebral tattoo when we wish to express tenderness.
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We hear it from the inside the mother’s womb, and then in our childhood. Several studies carried out by researchers; ensure that with this way of communicating emotional ties can indeed improve our cognitive and learning capacity. This universal language used in all cultures predisposes us to protection, to comfort. Have you noticed how any adult reacts when listening to a baby crying? Most likely, they try to calm him with childish expressions and gestures.
Just that this same purpose: the desire to preserve, reveal attachment and generate affection is also integrated into the relationships of couples. The same as romantic “mottos” are common, so change in the voice and brain processes when we address who we love. But it can be as cheesy as sexy. However, it can also translate other features.
Imitating and limiting
Recreating our childhood, making childish winks and fusses has worked wonders with the male sex. And nothing like sweeten it ups with a soft little voice. However precisely because of this system of reward and advancement-making, its nuance in sexual and couple dynamics may contain a great desire for control.
Likewise, when a man uses it with his wife, he can be establishing certain limiting ingredients. It is a common hallmark in those who treat their partner, both in daily life and in intimate contact, as if she were a girl. In other words, using domination and overprotection.
From a man’s perspective it’s just a way of being softer with someone you feel tender feelings toward
It is neither a general rule nor the most appropriate. Especially in a context where blackmail or manipulation is detected. We are not necessarily starting to delete all “couple codes” where this type of expression is used, but keep an eye on the types and frequencies of occasions that your couple is using them.
Too much honey in bed
Let’s say for example that your partner uses this type of language when requesting certain practices that he thinks are probably uncomfortable or make you feel inadequate. Or, that they have become accustomed to communicating during sexual encounters.
Although the erotic fullness of contact through the five senses is a subjective and personal value and we can find it not only amusing but also rewarding, it is also possible to indicate non-positive aspects. For example, a certain inability to assume as an adult, to integrate sexually as authentic beings outside of those Sami characters created in that infantile line.
Every expression of sexuality has obvious validity, as long as you do not physically or emotionally hurt your partner in any way; more out of roles, or that just functions as a trigger for your excitement for keeping baby talk as a constant can also indicate not only a restricted sexual style but how it is intimated or directed to its dynamics. It detects how limiting, controlling or manipulating it can be.
Baby talk may be used as a form of flirtation between sexual or romantic partners. In this instance, the baby talk may be an expression of tender intimacy, and may (but not universally) form part of affectionate sexual roleplaying
Putting too much empathy on your night of passion and going to it with a childish tone can interpret some kind of pity or minimization towards the moment. There will be men who start talking like a child, but analyzing what they get by doing this. To mix it into during a night of passion with another explicit sexual language is a combination in contradiction.
Either you are seductive and hot, or you are a mommy-girl. You choose. Using this weapon in a couple intimate discussions, trying to win a debate wrapped in a baby cloud will be impossible. Are you being extra affectionate or do you just want to manipulate? When using this tone of voice.
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