Telling the difference between a German and French speaker isn’t difficult. But you may be more surprised to know that you could have a good stab at distinguishing between German and French babies based on their cries. The bawls of French newborns tend to have a rising melody, with higher frequencies becoming more prominent as the cry progresses. German newborns tend to cry with a falling melody.
These differences are apparent just three days out of the womb. This suggests that they pick up elements of their parents’ language before they’re even born, and certainly before they start to babble themselves.
Birgit Mampe from the University of Wurzburg analysed the cries of 30 French newborns and 30 German ones, all born to monolingual families. She found that the average German cry reaches its maximum pitch and intensity at around 0.45 seconds, while French cries do so later, at around 0.6 seconds.
These differences match the melodic qualities of each respective language. Many French words and phrases have a rising pitch towards the end, capped only by a falling pitch at the very end. German more often shows the opposite trend – a falling pitch towards the end of a word or phrase.
These differences in “melody contours” become apparent as soon as infants start making sounds of their own. While Mampe can’t rule out the possibility that the infants learned about the sounds of their native tongue the few days following their birth, she thinks it’s more likely that they start tuning into the own language in the womb.
In some ways, this isn’t surprising. Features like melody, rhythm and intensity (collectively known as prosody) travel well across the wall of the stomach and they reach the womb with minimum disruption. We know that infants are very sensitive to prosodic features well before they start speaking themselves, which helps them learn their own mother tongue.
But this learning process starts as early as the third trimester. We know this because newborns prefer the sound of their mother’s voice compared to those of strangers. And when their mums speak to them in the saccharine “motherese”, they can suss out the emotional content of those words through analysing their melody.
Mampe’s data show that not only can infants sense the qualities of their native tongue, they can also imitate them in their first days of life. Previously, studies have found that babies can imitate the vowel sounds of adults only after 12 weeks of life, but clearly other features like pitch can be imitated much earlier. They’re helped by the fact that crying only requires them to coordinate their breathing and vocal cord movements, while making speech sounds requires far more complex feats of muscular gymnastics that are only possible after a few months.
Reference: Current Biology doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064
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While dogs can often be taught new tricks, cat-owners will be all too aware that it can be very difficult to persuade them to do something they don’t want to do. Eddie Izzard summed it up best in his legendary Pavlov’s cat sketch, where felines are quite capable of outfoxing (outcatting?) eminent Welsh-Russian psychologists. Real cats may be less devious, but only just – new research suggests that they are very skilled at getting their human owners to do their bidding.
When they want food, domestic cats will often purr in a strangely plaintive way that their owners find difficult to ignore. By analysing the structure of these calls, Karen McComb from the University of Sussex has found out why. On the surface, the “solicitation purrs” are based on the same low-pitched sounds that contented moggies make, but embedded within them is a high-pitched signal that sounds like a cry or a meow. It’s this hidden signal that makes the purr of a hungry cat so irresistible to humans.
McComb has a long history of research into animal communication and she has studied the calls of African elephants, red deer, lions and macaques. But it was her own cat, Pepo (pictured above), who provided the inspiration for this study.
“He consistently woke me up in the mornings with very insistent purring,” she said. ”I wondered why this purring sounded so annoying and was so difficult to ignore. Talking with other cat owners, I found that some of them also had cats who showed strikingly similar behaviour. As I was an academic who actually worked on vocal communication [in mammals], I had the right background, tools and collaborators to tackle this question directly.”