The Science of Sex is a column from Broadly exploring the tech behind the complicated and fantastic ways we get off—because sex is sexy, but science is sexier. This week, we learn why couples speak to each other in baby speak, and if there's any excuse for it.
If there’s anything more heinous than a couple in love, it’s a couple using baby speak—which is why my boyfriend calls me a stupid bitch, and I love him for it. But why do couples persist in talking to each other like morons? And is the only proper term of affection for your significant other “Mother”, as favored by Vice-President Pence?
Most experts agree that baby talk between adult couples in romantic relationships has a bonding effect. At a fundamental level, calling your boyfriend “babe” or, more horrifyingly, “snugglepuffs” is a way of solidifying your mutual attachment.
Why? Blame your mom.
“Baby talk is used really extensively, including cross-culturally, by mothers around the world,” explains Florida State University neuroanthropologist Professor Dean Falk. She’s the author of Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language, and a specialist in the origins of human language development.
“It exists for language acquisition in infants, and it also expresses love and facilitates bonding between the mother and the infant,” she says, explaining that studies show that infants love baby talk—especially when it comes from their mother.
When it comes to adult bonding, Falk believes that similar principles apply. “My hypothesis is an extremely simple one,” she says. “Couples, speaking this way, harken back to their own experience when they were infants and to their first love, their mother.”
Linguistic experts agree that baby talk plays a role in bonding. However, they're also interested in examining the specific terms of endearment couples tend to use. “Commonly, when babies begin acquiring language, they use the vowel ‘a’, and consonants like ‘p’, ‘b’, and ‘m’ because they are bilabial [a sound caused by the closure or near closure of the lips] and the easiest to pronounce,” says Professor Frank Nuessel of the University of Louisville. As a result, words like “baby”, “baby doll”, “sweetie”, and “buttercup” are common in adult baby talk.
For Nuessel, baby talk isn’t just about bonding—it’s about providing adults with a space to express themselves, free of the stultifying conventions of normal human conversation. “One reason is to initiate a role-playing scenario so that both participants can feel free to express their thoughts and feelings in a comfortable framework,” he explains. “It allows both people a certain freedom from the normal constraints of adult roles.”
Adult life can be oppressive and exhausting—particularly when you factor in the amount of emotional energy that’s expended maintaining the illusion of being a fully-functioning adult, rather than a child playing make-believe. That's where baby talk comes in, explains psychotherapist Dr. Nan Wise.
“There are seven basic emotional systems that all animals have—it’s how we’ve been evolutionarily wired,” says Dr. Wise. These systems—including rage, fear, care, and play—may even form part of the neurological infrastructure of the brain.
Wise argues that the need for baby talk taps into our inbuilt play systems. “When we’re young, all animals learn by play,” she explains. “These social connections are critical for wellbeing. So using baby talk to each other is a way of facilitating these innate bonding systems of play, and care.”
Of course, if you’re looking for a way to unwind from the cares of the world and de-stress, why not engage in the ultimate act of adult play—sex—and leave the baby talk to the kids?