Acoustic regularities in infant-directed vocalizations across cultures
Humans often produce vocalizations for infants that differ from vocalizations for adults. Is this property common across societies? The forms of infant-directed vocalizations may be shaped by their function in parent-infant communication. If so, infant-directed song and speech should be differentiable from adult-directed song and speech on the basis of their acoustic features, and this property should be relatively invariant across cultures. To test this hypothesis, we built a corpus of 1,614
... cordings of infant- and adult-directed singing and speech produced by 411 people living in 21 urban, rural, and small-scale societies. We studied the corpus in a massive online experiment and in a series of acoustic analyses. Naïve listeners (N = 13,218) reliably identified infant-directed vocalizations as infant-directed, and adult-directed speech (but not songs) as adult-directed, at rates far higher than chance. Ratings of infant-directed song were the most accurate and the most consistent across all societies; infant-directed speech was accurately identified on average, but inconsistently across societies. To determine the mechanisms underlying these results, we extracted many acoustic features from each recording and identified those that most reliably characterize infant-directed song and speech across cultures, via preregistered exploratory-confirmatory analyses and machine classification. The features distinguishing infant- and adult-directed song and speech concerned pitch, rhythmic, phonetic, and timbral attributes; a hypothesis-free classifier with cross-validation across societies reliably identified all vocalization types, with highest accuracy for infant-directed song. Last, we isolated 12 acoustic features that were predictive of perceived infant-directedness; of these, two pitch attributes (median F0 and its variability) were by far the most explanatory. These findings demonstrate cross-cultural regularities in infant-directed vocalizations that are suggestive of universality; moreover, infant-directed song appears to be more cross-culturally stereotyped than infant-directed speech, informing hypotheses of the functions and evolution of both.