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Baby talk more than nonsense

For those who believe the way mothers talk to their newborns is gibberish, Dean Falk has some news for you:

Baby talk is serious business.

It represents, she says, a microcosm of seven million years of linguistic evolution and further proves that man and chimpanzee are offspring of a common ancestor.

The Florida State University biological anthropology professor told a crowd of about 100 in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center Ballroom Tuesday night that she believes baby talk, or motherese, was a precursor to spoken language.

Motherese is comprised of simple vocabulary, elongated vowels and high-pitched sounds. Early relatives of humans used this method, Falk said, to establish emotional communication and, as the baby’s brain developed, it was used as a tool that regulated the baby’s social habits.

The origin of language, Falk says, has been a controversial topic among anthropologists dating back to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary research.

Some scientists don’t believe that language could have evolved from early hominids.

Falk disagrees.

There are too many similarities in the way mother chimps interact with their infants and human mothers interact with theirs, she says.

For instance, one way humans establish emotional communication with a baby is by tickling.

The baby typically responds by laughing. The mother again tickles the baby and achieves the same result.

This, Falk says, teaches the infant the idea of “taking turns” in a conversation.

And chimps, Falk says, are no different.

Mother chimps have been observed tickling their babies and bringing about the same responses.

Baby chimps, like humans, are helpless at birth, become distressed when separated from the mother and have a fear of strangers.

However, the difference with chimps is that communication is more gestural.

“We are the only species in the world that chock up little bits of air and spew it forth,” Falk said.

And there is a reason for that.

As hominids evolved and eventually became bipedal, babies could no longer cling to their mothers as chimps do.

The horizontal plane of the mothers’ backs on which babies depended for stability became vertical when hominids stood up on two feet. This, Falk said, led to the human characteristic of baby-carrying.

When a mother had to forage for food, she would have to put the baby down. Simple gestural communication did not suffice while she and the baby were separated, and here, Falk says, early vocal communication was born.

For the past year, Falk has been working with other anthropologists to prove this theory.

Using new-world technology, Falk hopes to find a definitive answer to this old-world debate.

First, scientists used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to scan the brains of 32 humans. While being scanned, they were asked to perform mental tasks. Scientists then documented which parts of the brain were stimulated and later developed a composite virtual human brain labeled for all of its functions.

By using MRIs of fossil skulls, scientists were able to create three-dimensional brain images of modern humans’ early relatives.

Scientists took those virtual brains, scaled them to the same volume as the human brain and tried to fit them into the composite human skull.

By analyzing what did and did not fit, scientists were able to pinpoint specific parts of the brain in ancient hominids that eventually developed into the modern-human brain.

Specifically, scientists were able to hypothesize from their findings that the right hemisphere of the brain was a crucial factor in the development of motherese.

Humans, Falk says, are a unique species in that we communicate so much differently than other animals.

Researching the origins of language may be controversial, but finding out why we communicate the way we do will always generate interest, she says.

“After all, we all want to know where we come from,” she said.For Liliana Perez, who watched Falk’s presentation, the information about motherese and its effects is more than just interesting, it’s pragmatic.

“For me, this was so useful,” she said, patting her belly. “I’m pregnant.”