The Cat in the Hat and All That

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It’s not just in poetry that metre matters. The joy of reading a passage of text is enhanced if the rhythm of the words is pleasing. Indeed, I’m tempted to change ‘metre matters’ to ‘metres matter’, because the pacing of that first sentence is better with the latter. In this piece, I want to look at the developmental origins of the pleasure that we find in the rhythms of phrases. The story will take us back to early childhood. Indeed, it takes us back into the womb!

Motherese and the two-day-old two-step

Adults talk t very young children in a particular way. They raise the pitch of their voices. They shorten their utterances. And they vary their intonation. This type of talk is misleadingly known as ‘motherese’. Misleading, because it’s not only mothers who adopt this style. Most adults do, irrespective of their sex or parental status. And it turns out that it is more than simply a collective insanity in which we all engage when confronted by a baby in a pushchair. We are actually shaping our speech to accentuate the rhythms of our utterances.

It has been shown that most four-month-old babies display a preference for listening to motherese, over the regular adult-to-adult variety¹. It seems likely that interesting speech rhythms capture the baby’s attention. And that is, of course, why we spend so much time reciting rhymes and singing songs to babies and young children. It is reasonable to suppose that these are highly functional behaviours. If we, as adults, are delivering our language to youngsters in ways that encourage them to pay attention to it, then that will surely help them in the (frankly miraculous) process that we call ‘language development’.

We don’t have to wait until a baby is four months old to witness this apparent engagement with the rhythms of speech. In a famous and controversial study in 1974, Condon and Sander claimed to have observed newborns as young as 24–48 hours old moving their bodies in synchronisation with the rhythms of adult speech². Just consider that for a moment. The apparently random movements of a two-day old’s head, body, and limbs in their crib may not be random at all! The baby may be ‘dancing’ to the rhythms of the speech culture that surrounds them.

Synchrony

Dancing to the rhythms of speech is something that continues for most people into adulthood. We tend to move in sync with our own talk. Think of your hand gestures and how you deliver them. It is sometimes as if we are conducting our own words, especially when we exaggerate the effect while public speaking, or when we decide to make a specific point with a flourish. This is known as self-synchrony. The reason that I used the phrase ‘for most people’ is that some do not synchronise as exactly with their own speech as others. Those on the autism spectrum, for example, tend to show a little less self-synchrony than those who are not on that spectrum.

Even more relevant here is the observation that in conversation we tend to move in sync with the rhythms of the speech of the person with whom we are talking. And they move in time with our speech. This is known as interactional synchrony³, and it is a most intriguing feature of human communication. One way of thinking about conversation is as a form of dance, set to the rhythmic soundtrack of the words that are spoken. I’ve often wondered whether you would be able to detect subtle movements in a reader, synchronised with the rhythms of the words that are written. There is probably a PhD in that. You’re welcome.

The baby in utero

Needless to say, to understand fully the origins of what is going on here, we need to go back even further in a baby’s development; back to before they are born. The child in utero already has a comparatively rich linguistic environment by the third trimester of pregnancy. They can hear the language of those around them. The speech that they experience might sound as though it has been low-pass filtered at 400 hz — clasp the palm of your hand over your mouth and try talking in order to approximate the effects of ‘low-pass filtering’ — but crucially the baby can still detect its prosodic features.

Prosody refers to that aspect of speech that has to do with its physical characteristics; pitch, intonation, stress, tempo, rhythm. And there is plenty of evidence to show that the baby’s — our — interest in these aspects of speech begins in the womb. From the earliest moments of life, we (as unborn children) are particularly tuned into those things. For example, when we are but three days old we can recognise a story (‘The Cat in the Hat’, say) that has been spoken to us regularly during the last few weeks of pregnancy⁴. It’s not that we understand the words. It’s that we recognise the structure of the sounds that are made when they are spoken. This effect has even been demonstrated in the womb. If our mothers recite a particular rhyme to us from the 33rd week of pregnancy onwards, we will show signs (a slowing of our heart rate) that indicate that we recognise it several weeks later before we are born⁵.

Rhythm matters

The evidence is clear. As babies, we ‘tune in’ to the prosody of the speech that surrounds us, even before we are born. It’s how we engage with the language that we will go on to learn. In fact, it’s a key starting point for our whole developmental journey in that regard. Given that this is where we start, perhaps it is no wonder that, as adults, we still delight in the pleasing rhythms of the words and phrases that skilful writers prepare for us on the page.

References

¹ Fernald, A. (1985). Four-month-old infants prefer to listen to motherese. Infant Behavior & Development, 8(2), 181–195.

² Condon, W. S., & Sander, L. W. (1974). Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech: Interactional participation and language acquisition. Science, 183(4120), 99–101.

³ Schmidt, R. C., Morr, S., Fitzpatrick, P., & Richardson, M. J. (2012). Measuring the Dynamics of Interactional Synchrony. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 36(4), 263–279.

⁴ DeCasper, A. J., & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior & Development, 9(2), 133–150.

⁵ DeCasper, A. J., Lecanuet, J.-P., Busnel, M.-C., Granier-Deferre, C., & Maugeais, R. (1994). Fetal reactions to recurrent maternal speech. Infant Behavior and Development, 17(2), 159–164.

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