Overview: Whines are perceived as annoying vocalizations, and they are supreme at distracting listeners. Their use in attachment relationships just might have a surprising origin.
The sound of a crying newborn can evoke many responses in a listener – most often the attempt to find the source of discomfort and alleviate it. Change a diaper, make a bottle. But somewhere around 10 months, the cries stop being a cute little alarm system, and start to get annoying. At this point, babies are able to communicate in other ways, and a grating cry is not the preferred method to adults.
Now try to take the kid’s perspective, and we might realize a similar pattern. Motherese, or babytalk, is quite useful for communicating with prelinguistic infants that can’t self regulate. The slow, sing-songy production of motherese makes word parsing easier for babies and young children; it soothes them and can change the emotions of an infant to calm or excite depending on the speaker’s mood. But when the child is old enough to hold a conversation and regulate his/her own emotions….does motherese, too, become annoying?
When I talk to people about my research, the resounding answer I get is YES! Motherese to an older child is annoying, motherese used with a spouse (“loverese”) is annoying to outside listeners, and perhaps the icing on the annoying cake is motherese spoken to one’s elderly parents or non-native speakers (Freed, 1981).
Some of my recently published research explores the capacity of cries, motherese, and whining to distract a listener (Chang & Thompson, 2011). Each of these vocalizations are united by a similar structure – they are higher in pitch than everyday speech, they are typically spoken in a slower and more drawn out manner, they rise and fall more than the boring speech I use when speaking to a cashier. But the similarities do not end there. Whines, cries, and motherese distract listeners and attract the attention of listeners (Chang & Thompson, 2010) better than everyday speech or even the high pitched grating sound of a table saw catching on wood.
Whines stand out, however, on the spectrum of annoyingness. People consider them more annoying than other types of speech, even boasts (Sokol, Webster, Thompson & Stevens, 2005) and they are more distracting than cries and motherese in absolute terms (Chang & Thompson, 2011). Whines persist because they work – and they work because humans appear to have been designed to respond to human-produced sounds that are high-pitched, drawn out, and sing-songy. Whines take these features to an extreme, and add a nasally aspect that cannot be ignored.
Let me propose another similarity between cries, whines, and motherese. They each inform the use of the other. Meaning that cries work so well, that parents have started (long ago) altering their speech in similar ways when communicating with infants. Motherese works so well, that children have begun altering their speech with those they love best, in the form of whining. Who can blame them for their inexperienced replication? Ever seen a toddler dance?
Whines, as with cries and motherese, also have a shelf-life of acceptability. Babies begin altering their cries into a “whiny” manner somewhere around the first year, and later start to use it with words. But sooner or later, parents start asking the question “how can I make my kid stop whining?” And the advice that my co-author and I offer is “stop whining at your kids.” Motherese is useful during the first few years of a child’s life, when the child is most immature and still mastering communication. But once you can start conversing in a relatively sophisticated manner with a child, try doing so in a normal tone of voice. Maybe, just maybe, your child will stop whining to you in response.
Chang, R. S. & Thompson, N. S. (2010). The attention-getting capacity of whines and child-directed speech. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(2), 260-274.
Chang, R. S. & Thompson, N. S. (2011). Whines, cries, and motherese: Their relative power to distract. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 5(2), 131-141.
Freed, B. (1981). Foreigner talk, baby talk, native talk. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 28, 19-40.
Sokol, R. I., Webster, K. L., Thompson, N. S. & Stevens, D. A. (2005). Whining as mother-directed speech. Infant and Child Development, 14(5), 478-490.