tennyson’s developmental linguistics

Wrenched from its context, a verse by Tennyson –

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

It would make an excellent essay question: is there ever a time when an infant has no language but a cry?


9 thoughts on “tennyson’s developmental linguistics

  1. It’s v interesting actually. If you say that the first ‘voluntary’ productions come with cooing in response to someone (mother) speaking to them, then that only leaves the very first few months of life where there’s ‘no language but a cry.’ But if you look at speech perception abilities, even newborns a matter of days old prefer listening to recordings of their own language instead of foreign languages (etc), so at least some sensitivity to the properties of the forms of language is there right from the start, even before birth.


  2. Babies whose mothers relaxed during pregnancy by watching Neighbours are calmed by the theme tune after birth. Apparently. Presumably they just recognise the sound. Do they distinguish between e.g. English and Dutch with an English accent? (trying to think of languages that have similar sounds) Or the same langauge with very different accents?


  3. I actually turned on the radio the other day in the middle of Desert Island Discs and there was Michael Macintyre saying his next tune was one that he’d felt an immediate affinity with on hearing for the first time in his 20s – only for his mother to say she’d played it all the time when she was pregnant with him. The Logical Song by Supertramp, for the record.

    More from the annals of pre-natal learning – 2-day-olds recognise the recording of a passage which their mother read to them during the last few weeks of pregnancy, and in fact at 37 weeks they’ll respond to a passage their mother read to them up to 4 weeks previously. Presumably on the basis of ‘global’ characteristics of the speech signal (like intonation) as obviously things will sound different in utero compared to when the signal just reaches you through air … but they’re still clever.

    It’s true that newborns can only distinguish typologically different languages (eg they don’t distinguish between English and German, but they do treat English as different from eg Spanish) but by 4-5 months they can also distinguish typologically similar languages if one is their native language.

    All jolly interesting.


  4. Just thinking aloud, so I thought I would throw this into the mix.

    What about Matthew 21.16 ……….?

    ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected (framed) praise.’


  5. Yeah, not sure what that means. Is it the contrast between unlikely sources of praise – stones in the street, infants, when grown men and religious leaders refused to acknowledge him? Or is it the wonder that the Lord whose name is excellent and whose glory is in the heavens puts it in the heart of even infants to praise him and accepts their praise? There are some very gentle/kindly figures about children (we had a sermon recently from around the bit ‘I taught Ephraim to walk, taking him by the arms’ (paraphrase)) and the idea that the Father in his grace is pleased with the feeble proto-movements of his children, their almost-but-not-quite-managing things – instead of making him impatient he finds them endearing almost. The “abba, father” thing is apparently meant to be a baby’s first attempts to say daddy – this is what the power of the Holy Spirit achieves.

    There’s a prevailing sense that it’s bad form to talk about children’s development in a way that makes students think “awww, how cuuute,” which i have to say i entirely concur with!, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recognise and admire the how incredibly sophisticated children’s skills and learning often are, considered on their own terms, given the complexity of their environment and the brevity of their experience and the limitations of their cognitive and motor capacities.


  6. Your original question raises for me the (equally interesting) question of whether non-human animals can ever be said to have language. Of course it depends on your definition. Is it possible (or even desirable) to come up with a sensible definition of language that includes newborns’ abilities but excludes all non-human animals’ abilities?


  7. You’d have to be comparing like with like – ie why compare the initial state of human development with the mature state of non-human species? If you want to know how other species communicate, you don’t look at their newborns, you look at the mature animals, so in that sense I’m not sure it would be desirable to define language in terms of newborns’ abilities.

    Having said that, I think Tomasello and his lab have worked on describing children’s referential behaviours in a way which distinguishes them quite clearly from the behaviour of apes, although don’t ask me for the details. I’m generally content to accept the standard view that language is unique to humans without having looked into it very deeply – Hockett’s design features is about as serious as I ever got with this question I’m afraid! What do you think?


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