Miall, David. S., & Ellen Dissanayake. "The Poetics of Babytalk." Human Nature (forthcoming).


Caretaker infant attachment is a complex but well-recognized adaptation in humans. An early instance of (or precursor to) attachment behavior is the dyadic interaction between adults and infants of 6 to 24 weeks, commonly called "babytalk." Detailed analysis of 1 minute of spontaneous babytalk with an 8 week infant shows that the poetic texture of the mother's speech -- specifically its use of metrics, phonetics, and foregrounding -- helps to shape and direct the baby's attention, as it also coordinates the partners' emotional communication. We hypothesize that the ability to respond to poetic features of language is present as early as the first few weeks of life and that this ability attunes cognitive and affective capacities in ways that provide a foundation for the skills at work in later aesthetic production and response. By linking developmental social processes with formal cognitive aspects of art, we challenge predominant views in evolutionary psychology that literary art is a superfluous byproduct of adaptive evolutionary mechanisms or primarily an ornament created by sexual selection.

[D.M. and E.D.]