A fun game to play at my house is, “Am I talking to my boyfriend or my cat?”
Apparently, I address them interchangeably, from the vaguely creative (Tiny Monster, Lil’ Belly) to the uninspired (Baby, Honey). I’ve got a long, cloying spool of pet names in my back pocket and a soft coo that I’d find unrecognizable if caught on tape. It’s only when I hear my boyfriend call out from the other room (“What’s that, Baby?”) that I realize he thinks I’ve been talking to him when really I’ve been telling my cat that he is just the squishiest squish that has ever squished, which isn’t great, because it means I, a 33-year-old woman, talk to my 36-year-old boyfriend of a year like an infant or a small toy or apparently, my cat.
It’s not just me: A totally unscientific survey of my friends reveals the majority of them use pet names with their partners, from the benign “Sweetheart” to the truly eccentric “Bumble,” “Pickle,” “Vanilla Bean,” “Crumpet,” “Boobs” and “Cuttlefish.”
This is weird, right? It feels weird. At worst, it feels like a sign that the relationship is heading for an intimacy entirely devoid of sex, or like you’ve simply run out of adult conversation. Is all we have between us now a chasm we try to fill with cloying dialogue that signals something resembling affection? Is baby talk just a coded way of saying the relationship has run its course?
In a study from 1996, 75% of couples in “happy relationships” (okay) said they use pet names and baby talk with each other. I am very committed to a “happy relationship,” so this was good news. These couples also reported stronger and more intimate attachments. The researchers found that baby talk causes spikes in dopamine and oxytocin (good-feeling hormones) in the areas of the brain concerned with bonding.
And all of these feelings? Extremely similar to what parents and babies experience when communicating with each other.
Dean Falk, Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University, explores the origins of “parent-ese” (fancy baby talk) in her book Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants & The Origins of Language. “Parent-ese” is the specific, base verbal language parents use with their children. It is categorized by a limited and specific vocabulary, higher-pitch tone of voice, and slower, over-enunciated speech. Babies dig it: research shows they react much more positively to baby talk than they do to regular speech, and that its use enables the development of language and grammar.
“The emergence of baby talk is embedded in a wider theory of human evolution,” Falk says. Unlike all other apes, human babies can’t cling to their mothers with four limbs. Infant chimps are able to nurse on demand and form an innate pair bond with their mothers by virtue of being physically connected to them at all times. This means they simply don’t need to vocalize, as they are so rarely separated. Human babies, on the other hand, need a way of communicating with their parents when they are not physically close to them, a language of their own that helps to cement their bond.
From the moment a baby is born, parents instinctively begin to use baby talk as a way to express love and signal attachment. It is also how they unconsciously teach their children the skills they need to acquire language. Parents hyper-articulate vowels, for example, and over-enunciate certain grammatical constructions. In this way, Falk says, baby talk is an “important scaffold” for language development.
So why, then, do we use it with partners — grown adults (fingers crossed) who hopefully already know how to string together a sentence?
“It’s not difficult to speculate as to why baby talk is used among partners,” Falk tells me. Because our relationships with our partners are our most intimate after the relationship we have with our parents, we intuitively revert to methods of connection we used with our parents as a way of securing our attachments. We’re reactivating these primal feelings of security and comfort that we felt as children, expressing our very elemental love for our partners and unconsciously asserting our bond. Baby talk just makes us feel safe.
Before we get too Freudian, there is an explicit and meaningful difference between the way we use baby talk with our partners and the way it is used between parents and children. “With babies, we unconsciously emphasize the acoustic and grammatical features of language — longer vowels, or stressing certain words — but we do not do the same with our partners,” says Falk. “The emotional bonding aspects are there, but not the linguistic aspects.” The two communication modes are acoustically very different, even as they share some of the same traits: the call-and-response of affection and security, the implicit request to be kept safe and cared for.
But could there be a downside to this behavior? In theory, yes: too much of this performative affection could possibly mask more serious issues of communication and connection. Also, you might make your friends vomit. But, as Falk told me, “There’s really nothing wrong with it as long as both partners enjoy it. And, in fact, it can strengthen your bond.”
So go forth, Cuttlefish.
Photo via Getty Images.