It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Language is mainly about building and maintaining social relationships.

Posted Jan 30, 2015

Kids say the darnedest things, and so do mothers. Moms coo to their babies, and the babies coo back. It doesn’t matter what mom actually says—after all, the kid doesn’t understand any of it. Rather, it’s how she says it that counts.

The language that mothers use with their infants is quite different from ordinary speech. The range of pitch is greater, the rhythms are more regular, and there’s lots of repetition. In other words, motherese—also known as infant-directed speech—has a number of features in common with music.

Mother Kissing Baby
Motherese is as much music as language.

Several theorists have looked at the connections among motherese, music, and the evolution of language. For example, anthropologist Dean Falk has proposed that language evolved out of the vocalizations of mothers soothing their young. Although the exact sounds will differ from culture to culture, the act of mothers cooing and hushing their infants as they cradle them in their arms is a universal human behavior that quite likely has deep evolutionary roots.

According to Dean’s mother tongue hypothesis, language evolved from maternal vocalizations that took on meaning over the course of many generations. In time, these vocalizations developed into a way for family members to communicate. After even more generations had passed, this mother tongue spread throughout the community until everyone in the group spoke the same language.

Other researchers also see musical roots in the evolution of language. Archeologist Steven Mithen proposes that it wasn’t motherese per se but rather singing that became the origin of speech. There’s clearly a relationship between music and language, but the exact nature of that relationship is unclear, and scholars debate at length about which came first.

Like Dean Falk, Steven Mithen claims that pre-human mothers made humming sounds to soothe their babies. Over evolutionary time, these wordless songs were segmented into meaningful units that became the words of the first language.

According to Mithen’s theory, the habit of singing to babies was extended to other situations, such as religious ceremonies and to coordinate group behaviors. The chanting of nonsense syllables is a common feature in religious practices even in modern times. Buddhists chant sutras in an ancient Sanskrit they don’t understand, and Muslims recite Quranic verses in a classical Arabic quite different from modern dialects. I even remember the Mass being recited in Latin as a child.

Musical vocalizations are used to coordinate group activities outside of religious practices as well. The military cadences of marching soldiers is just one example, as are the work songs of chain gangs. A well-known example from popular culture would be the chanting of the witch’s guards in The Wizard of Oz.

Thus, Mithen proposes that both music and language derive from the same source, namely the humming of pre-human social social interactions. He presents his theory in a book called The Singing Neanderthals. However, it’s important to note that Mithen uses the term Neanderthal loosely, using it to refer to early humans in general and not just the species Homo neanderthalensis.

Chanting Monks
Chanting is a common way to coordinate group behavior.

Also considering the social aspects of language is evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Our chimpanzee cousins live in relatively complex societies, in which they build and maintain social relationships through mutual grooming. Although grooming serves a hygienic purpose, cleaning the fur and skin of insects and debris, it solidifies friendships as well.

Humans also engage in social grooming—doing each other’s hair, primping each other’s clothes. But according to Dunbar, we’ve found an easier and more effective way of building and maintaining relationships—idle chit-chat. His social grooming hypothesis, then, proposes that gossip for humans serves the same purpose of social network building as does grooming for chimpanzees.

Grooming Macaques
Grooming is the chit-chat of the primate world.

These three hypotheses focus on the social aspects of language use and don’t really get at the specifics of how language evolved. But they do challenge us to think about what language is.

Traditional approaches, such as those taken by linguist Noam Chomsky, view language as a system for transmitting thoughts from one person to another. Certainly, language can be used to transmit informational content. And yet, two friends will chit-chat for hours, and when they part ways the only thing engraved in their memories is that they had a great time, even though they can’t recall the details of what they talked about.

In other words, it’s not the content that’s important but rather the communication of feelings, that is, the building of mutual trust and affection. Chit-chit with friends is a lot like motherese—it’s not so much what you say but how you say it that counts.


Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Falk, D. (2009). Finding our tongues: Mothers, infants and the origin of language. New York: Basic Books.

Mithen, S. J. (2005) The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ross, B. (2009). Challenges facing theories of music and language co-evolution. Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, 6, 61–76.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).