December 06, 2006

News from Language Log Labs

Readers have been clamoring for our evaluation of the recent discovery from Down Under about the (so-called) universal language of babies:

After eight years of research, Australian mother Priscilla Dunstan says she has discovered a universal baby language, comprised of five distinct sounds.

Dunstan says babies produce the different sounds depending on their needs. 'Neh' means the child is hungry, while 'owh' indicates he or she is tired.

Other sounds include 'eh', 'eairh' and 'heh', which mean the infant needs burping, has wind or is uncomfortable.

Dunstan says babies make these sounds during the "pre-cry stage" - before they start crying hysterically - thus, parents who learn to identify the noises should be able to reduce the frequency of screaming outbursts.

Dunstan, who has always had a sharp listening skills, identified the five key sounds after spending hours listening to her own son and other infants.

She has since developed and released a Dunstan Baby Language DVD, which is available in Australia, America and is soon-to-be released in Britain.

Our crack team of researchers has been laboring around the clock to bring you the truth about this remarkable claim. Or rather, I've spent my breakfast hour this morning poking around on the internet, trying to decide whether to invest $59.95 in Ms. Dunstan's "Dunstan Baby Language 2 DVD Set", which appears to be the only source of information about her discoveries.

The wikipedia entry is essentially a compilation of PR materials, and the various associated websites are essentially advertisements.

The operators at Dunstan Baby Language are standing by, ready to take my order, but apparently they don't send out review copies, and they appear to be unwilling to accept a free 2-year subscription to Language Log in trade. If you happen to own a copy, and would like to lend it to me briefly for testing purposes, please let me know. Ditto if you know anything about credible attempts to evaluate the hypothesis that there are "five universal words or sound reflexes used by infants" -- for example, the effort said to be underway at Brown University.

[Update: more here, including some information about possible Brown University connections.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 6, 2006 08:25 AM