Skip to content
Show Menu

Functional flexibility of infant vocalization and the emergence of language

We report on the emergence of functional flexibility in vocalizations of human infants. This vastly underappreciated capability becomes apparent when prelinguistic vocalizations express a full range of emotional content—positive, neutral, and negative. The data show that at least three types of infant vocalizations (squeals, vowel-like sounds, and growls) occur with this full range of expression by 3–4 mo of age. In contrast, infant cry and laughter, which are species-specific signals apparently homologous to vocal calls in other primates, show functional stability, with cry overwhelmingly expressing negative and laughter positive emotional states. Functional flexibility is a sine qua non in spoken language, because all words or sentences can be produced as expressions of varying emotional states and because learning conventional “meanings” requires the ability to produce sounds that are free of any predetermined function. Functional flexibility is a defining characteristic of language, and empirically it appears before syntax, word learning, and even earlier-developing features presumed to be critical to language (e.g., joint attention, syllable imitation, and canonical babbling). The appearance of functional flexibility early in the first year of human life is a critical step in the development of vocal language and may have been a critical step in the evolution of human language, preceding protosyntax and even primitive single words. Such flexible affect expression of vocalizations has not yet been reported for any nonhuman primate but if found to occur would suggest deep roots for functional flexibility of vocalization in our primate heritage.