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The language we all speak: baby talk

More than 7,000 languages are spoken globally.

But recent research in the journal Nature Human Behavior suggests there's one dialect most of us share: baby talk.

Everywhere in the world, fussy babies cry. Many experts think adults, everywhere, might show a similar uniformity in their responses.

Using computer software and human listeners, researchers analyzed adult-directed and infant-directed speech from 18 languages in 12 language families across six continents. They also worked with people who had varying degrees of isolation from global media.

Although cultural variations occurred, most listeners could tell when an adult was speaking to a baby even without knowing the language used. The common thread: attention-grabbing higher pitches and musical speech rhythms.

Vocalizations in humans and other animals are limited by what the sender's body can produce and what the intended audience, which might be a member of a different species, can hear. Because many creatures use higher pitches to signal friendliness, some authors speculate the squeaky aspect of baby talk may have evolved from attempts to signal approachability to a baby or its parents.

Because the database did not comprise a representative sample of human societies or languages, more research is needed to confirm the pattern holds everywhere.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.