Did Early Humans Speak Baby Talk?

By Maria Godoy,
Discovery.com News

April 20, 2000 -- Remnants of humans' first words may lie hidden in the babble of babies learning to speak, researchers report in this week's journal Science.


The speech of our ancestors "might have been more like modern infant speech than modern adult speech," says Peter MacNeilage of the University of Texas at Austin.


MacNeilage and his colleagues studied the early utterances of 34 infants in six very different languages, from Japanese to English. All of the babies, they discovered, repeatedly babbled the same four patterns of consonant-vowel combinations.


"These patterns may be virtually universal in infants," says MacNeilage.   MacNeilage has also found that at least 20 modern languages have these sound patterns ingrained into the structure of adult speech.


The patterns babies use also lurk within the structure of "proto-words," words that sound the same and have similar meanings in hundreds of modern languages. Linguists hypothesize that proto-words derive from a common source, the first spoken language.


"The findings," says MacNeilage, "suggest that there was, in fact, one original language."


The baby patter results from basic mouth and jaw movements during speech. For example, by slightly pressing his lips while opening and closing his mouth, a baby coos "baba." The tongue pushed to the back of the mouth produces "gaga." With his tongue behind his teeth, baby gurgles "tata."


"These three sound patterns," MacNeilage said, "are formed almost by chance as babies tinker with their mouths."


In the fourth pattern, babies connect different mouth movements to make complex syllables like "pot" -- which involves both lip and tongue motions. This is a speech milestone: syllables can be strung together and, eventually, associated with meaning.


In other words, from a few basic physical effects, language arises.


"Physical, or phonetic, effects may be more pervasive -- and languages less arbitrary in structure -- than linguists have previously supposed," said John Locke, a linguist with the University of Cambridge, England.


According to Locke, the findings force researchers to reevaluate prevailing speech evolution theory, which holds a sudden genetic mutation gave humans the capacity for speech.


"These findings show you donít need a genetic change for language to develop," says MacNeilage.


Instead, he says, speech evolution was likely an organic process -- that like babies, early humans fiddled with their mouths until, inevitably, words came out.