Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese?

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27 (4):491-503 (2004)
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Abstract

In order to formulate hypotheses about the evolutionary underpinnings that preceded the first glimmerings of language, mother-infant gestural and vocal interactions are compared in chimpanzees and humans and used to model those of early hominins. These data, along with paleoanthropological evidence, suggest that prelinguistic vocal substrates for protolanguage that had prosodic features similar to contemporary motherese evolved as the trend for enlarging brains in late australopithecines/early Homo progressively increased the difficulty of parturition, thus causing a selective shift toward females that gave birth to relatively undeveloped neonates. It is hypothesized that hominin mothers adopted new foraging strategies that entailed maternal silencing, reassuring, and controlling of the behaviors of physically removed infants (i.e., that shared human babies' inability to cling to their mothers' bodies). As mothers increasingly used prosodic and gestural markings to encourage juveniles to behave and to follow, the meanings of certain utterances (words) became conventionalized. This hypothesis is based on the premises that hominin mothers that attended vigilantly to infants were strongly selected for, and that such mothers had genetically based potentials for consciously modifying vocalizations and gestures to control infants, both of which receive support from the literature. Key Words: bipedalism; brain size; chimpanzees; foraging; gestures; hominins; infant riding; motherese; prosody; protolanguage.

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