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We Don’t All Cry in the Same Language

A funny screenshot of a television series is passing around several websites, whose title reads “Woman Crying in Spanish” as an explanation of what is happening on screen. Of course, it’s not possible to cry in a specific language…or is it?

Those who have had babies learn, over time, to identify different types of crying and their motivations. If it is very persistent, it is likely that the baby is hungry; if it is very sharp, the child may be in pain; if it is restless, it is perhaps an indicator that he or she is sleepy. As such, one can find plenty of tips that help parents to interpret the meaning of the particular “baby language” and to act accordingly.

However, a study by the University of Würzburg in Germany argues that the crying of newborns reflects the language their parents speak from the first days of life. It was already known that children produce different melodies of crying, but what is new about this research is it suggests that, in addition, the patterns of melody are typical of the language of the environment they have heard during pregnancy, especially during the last three months.

The study compared babies born in French-speaking families with others from German-speaking families, when they were between 3 and 5 days old. The conclusions of the analysis revealed that the crying the first group differed markedly from the second, according to the native language. French newborns had an ascending melodic contour, while the German babies seemed to display a descending one. These characteristics correspond to differences between the two languages.

Although no comprehensive studies covering more languages have been performed, it is likely that the results of this study will mark a general trend: crying is the first manifestation of language. This also reflects the intention of intonation, which varies from language to language, and would allow for recognizing the reason for the crying that is hidden behind the melody. Apparently, then, in the same way that language can affect how we think and feel, it also affects how we cry.