OK, I’m going to try not to be too hard-nosed about this, because it’s about babies and mothers, and why be mean? But… well, here’s the story (reported by the New Zealand Herald):

Researcher discovers universal baby language
A newly discovered baby language is helping infants sleep through the night and mothers bond with their babies.
After eight years of research, Australian mother Priscilla Dunstan says she has discovered a universal baby language, comprised of five distinct sounds.
Dunstan says babies produce the different sounds depending on their needs. ‘Neh’ means the child is hungry, while ‘owh’ indicates he or she is tired.
Other sounds include ‘eh’, ‘eairh’ and ‘heh’, which mean the infant needs burping, has wind or is uncomfortable….
Dunstan, who has always had a sharp listening skills, identified the five key sounds after spending hours listening to her own son and other infants.

Well, all I can say is, I’ve achieved a new understanding of what “researcher” can mean. Also: eh, eairh, heh. (Thanks for the link, Simon!)


  1. That “researcher” was on Oprah a few weeks ago. So you know it’s legit. Right?

  2. Strange that we’d evolve the ability to speak this universal language as babies, but not to understand it as adults. The one seems rather pointless without the other.
    On the up-side, it’s reassuring that her research only took up “hours” over eight years; clearly, she was doing other things with most of her time.

  3. I’m surprised they didn’t discover that well-known infantese word for bread, ‘bekos’.

  4. It doesn’t bother me so much that someone’s mother thinks she’s found the language all babies speak, but moreso that folks in the media found this legitimate. Not that the phenomenon of credulity in pop media is anything new.

  5. I’m trying to figure out how “owh” and “eairh” are supposed to be pronounced. Maybe all words in UBL end in [h]?

  6. Let’s hope my mention of UBL doesn’t alert the NSA.

  7. Eskandar Jabbari says

    Sometimes I wonder if I should stop formally studying linguistics, and just make shit up. Instead of losing money attending a university, I’d be MAKING money publishing articles on how I’ve reconstructed Proto-Universal-Infant-World-Animal Speech-Eskimo Words for Snow-Nostratic Language or some such nonsense.
    Also, anyone else think the proposed UBL orthography looks suspiciously like Irish Gaelic? Maybe her baby is a leprechaun.

  8. Maybe babies communicate but is that all she got after 8 years?
    I tend to be conservative when it comes to forecasting potential ability in a foreign language but that’s a little lame.
    I could have told you that when a baby goes “eh” it means it’s got gas because it’s face also turns bright red and the diaper smells funny.

  9. It’s not clear from the article whether “needs burping”, “has wind”, and “is uncomfortable” are three disjoint and distinguishable states that map to the three words “eh”, “eairh”, and “heh”, respectively, or whether those three words (which represent 60% of the UBL dictionary) are actually synonyms. Perhaps “is uncomfortable” refers only to discomfort arising from body position, rather than internal difficulties? No doubt a grant for further research is required.

  10. Come on, folks, look on the bright side! There are only five words, all apparently invariant exclamations. This’ll be the easiest language to analyze ever!
    Neh = I am hungry
    Owh = I am tired
    Eh = I need burping
    Eairh = I have wind
    Heh = I am uncomfortable
    Already we can see that UBL appears to contain the following phonemes:
    vowels/diphthongs/triphthongs: /e/, /ow/, /eai/ (?)
    consonants: /h/, /n/, /r/ (? could be word-final variant of /h/)
    Further, all words in UBL end in /h/ (as KCinDC noted). It could perhaps be that indicates lengthening, in which case /r/ is presumably a consonant (a liquid) in its own right. We really need some audio data here, anyone have a baby handy?
    Going out on a limb here, but /e/ appears to be associated with air or gas. /neh/ is an exception, but perhaps this is related to /eh/, /n-/ being some sort of modal prefix. /eh/ = “I need burping”, /neh/, “I _want to enter the state in which I_ need burping”.
    /heh/ could also be related to /eh/; perhaps /h-/ is some sort of “not-quite” prefix. /eh/ = “I need burping”, /heh/ = “I do not need burping, but I am uncomfortable in some other way.” It seems odd to me that the most basic, unmarked form should be a specific form of discomfort while a prefix is required for the general case, but perhaps researches into Proto-UBL will shed some light on this mystery.

  11. Oh dear, the comment machine ate my angled brackets. Well, the resultant confusion can only help increase the mystique and prestige of UBL studies, which at present are critically underfunded in every linguistics department I am familiar with.

  12. An acquaintance of mine was raving about this woman and her book after the Oprah appearance, and I made the mistake of trying to dissuade her from wasting money on the book. She actually told me that she doesn’t care if there’s no linguistic merit to it, including whether or not the woman has any evidence whatsoever to back it up, she still believes it. It was on Oprah!

  13. That is fantastic! Forget a hundred words for snow – here’s a language completly devoted to discomfort. Eat that, Eskimos!

  14. yeah, I wondered… are babies ever happy, according to Priscilla?

  15. yeah, I wondered… are babies ever happy, according to Priscilla?

  16. “Dunstan identified the five key sounds after spending hours listening to her own son and other infants.”
    Or maybe she just watched an old episode of The Simpsons.

  17. Stephen Mulraney says

    It’s strange that people’s ability to recognise languages from their written forms tends to map any text with a high frequency of Hs to Irish – even when everything else about the text is un-Irishlike. With the (marginal) exception of the initial H in ‘Heh’, all the Hs are in illegal positions in Irish – after a vowel, or after R or W.
    If you look at samples of the older Irish script (trying to avoid saying ‘Old Irish … script’), you almost get the impression that H isn’t a normal letter, but rather a sort of extra orthographical symbol, like a Greek rough breathing, since it only occurs as a prefix to some words beginning with vowels in certain grammatical situations – and it’s always lower case, even if the following letter is a proper noun capital. In modern script, H also occurs after consonants, replacing the séimhiú-dot (punctum delens) of the older style.
    But about this article… it (like a lot of hyped pop-science articles) has a strange unreal feeling about it, for me. Its headline screams “IT’S ALL TRUE! BABIES HAVE THEIR OWN SECRET LANGUAGE, AND NOW WE KNOW HOW TO UNDERSTAND IT!’ (but more concisely…), suggesting that mother-baby relations will never be the same again, while the body of the article is about burping and the ‘Dunstan Baby Language DVD’ – in other words, fluff. It’s not the hype that perplexes me, but rather the contrast between the hype and the straightforward way the not-very-earthshaking facts of the story are presented. Any of these days I’m expecting to see ‘TIME TRAVEL DISCOVERED!’ with the sub-headline ‘May be useful for avoiding DVD rental fines, scientists say’.

  18. Stephen Mulraney says

    Perhaps that second sentence might be less perplexing if re-prepositioned thus:
    .. all the Hs are in illegal positions for Irish – after a vowel, or after R or W.

  19. Reminds me of the Ur-Tschimpanisch book that my advisor kept in his office for stressed grad students. It had five vowels as well, iirc. Ontogeny recreates phylogeny indeed!

  20. Awwww….don’t give the cute babies a hard time…what’s next–puppies? Baby chicks?

  21. I wouldn’t mind this if it was just bad science, but this lady is selling a product. A rather expensive one too. This is not ‘science journalism’ this is marketing. What a load of BS.

  22. What I want to know is: is UBL recursive? Perhaps we’d better get Tecumseh Fitch into the field.

  23. Stephen Mulraney — some of the contrast is, alas, to be expected from the fact that journalists don’t write the headlines; editors do. And headlines are advertising, designed to grab attention and lure the casual browser into reading (or at least buying or clicking). Which story sounds more interesting: “Dog Bites Man” or “Savage Pit Bulls Threaten City”?
    I’ve noticed this tendency even in New Scientist, which is probably the best general science journalism out there. Short headlines on the cover: totally overblown. Actual article titles: exaggerated. Actual articles: usually pretty good.

  24. Stephen Mulraney says

    Peter, that’s the reason, I know, but the practice nonetheless promotes a feeling of incoherence in the (this) reader. The headline, after all, isn’t just advertising, it’s also the first part of the story that’s read, and it does more than direct attention to the story, it sets the scene too. There’s an inevitable feeling that the (illusory single) author is witless. And then, the journalist’s text is often based on a wire report, or some other underlying text such as a quote from a person involved in the story. The shifts of style and emphasis can sometimes be pretty jarring between sections. I guess there must be people inured to this weirdness, who regard it as simply the journalistic style. (I fear that these people may be called ‘editors’).
    To answer your rhetorical question, without a doubt I’d be more likely to read “Dog bites man”. The latter title doesn’t sound more exciting, simply more lurid, and it promises the same goods, but accompanied by some unwanted editorializing (in a factual report) and no doubt some disheartening lurches of style.
    Your observation on NS makes sense – any time I’ve examined it (or other popular scientist journalism) I’ve been put off by the thick layer of fluff that’s apparently designed to repel people who might be interested in the articles, and to attract people who would find them too tedious and detailed. But I’m sometimes found myself reading something very interesting online, only to discover it was from NS or one of its ilk. Must try harder to penetrate the murk.

  25. Stephen and Peter,
    None of this is science writing. It’s all advertising. There is no science there to write about. All of the information in this article comes from press releases provided by Ms. Dunstan’s company.

  26. I don’t see how someone could claim to understand a language from nothing but simple observation. In my opinion, she would have had to have been able to learn the patterns and uses of the language and then would have had to gain some idea of the language from one of the speakers/users themselves in order to truly understand how it worked.
    Observation just does not cut it. I could easily observe Russian speakers, for example, (a language I do not speak at ALL), and come to recognize words that appear most frequently in conversation and begin to note the sounds used, but I would not be able to claim that I know exactly what is being communicated. That would require my studying the language for a great deal of time and then learning what native speakers know about their own language usage.
    This “reseacher” does not do this. She seems to merely have sat down one day, observed the noises her children made, determined what it was they wanted, and then assumed that every time they made a particular noise, they “meant” the same thing each time. It just seems very strange to me.
    Language is such a complicated thing that people cannot claim to know about a specific one unless they have immersed themselves in communication situations where it is used and have come to understand its different uses and complications. Furthermore, can this “baby language” really be considered a language if the user does not communicate with other users, but only attempts to communicate with those who care for it?

  27. If this qualifies as a “language,” then I’m delighted to announce my discovery of Universal Cat Language:
    Prrrrrr = I am happy
    Hssssst! = Go away
    MrrrOOOOOOOW! = Feed me NOW!
    Now where’s my book deal?

  28. What did I stumble into here? The Society of Sceptics? Why people have to bag someone for making a worthwhile contribution to society is beyond me. Jealous perhaps? My grandchildren have been so much happier and more easily settled, since applying this language to their cries. Shame on the lot of you.

  29. Meryl, I’m glad Ms. Dunstan helped you with your grandkids, and I don’t think any of us have a problem with the idea of paying attention to infants’ cries and distinguishing one from another; it’s the idea that there are “five key sounds” with specific meanings, as if they were words in a language much like English but with a smaller vocabulary, that is arousing skepticism. Don’t take it so hard; we are opposed to neither mothers nor infants, and I have a very nice grandson myself, so I’m not a stranger to the bond created thereby.

  30. One thing that wasn’t mentioned above is that this UBL is, according to Mrs. Dunston, only good for babies from birth to 3 months of age. Now think about the sounds you might have heard babies in that age range make. They are rather limited.

  31. One thing that wasn’t mentioned above is that this UBL is, according to Mrs. Dunston, only good for babies from birth to 3 months of age. Now think about the sounds you might have heard babies in that age range make. They are rather limited.

  32. I only have common knowledge of languages,but before you get into the scientific points, think about this.Dunstan claims that babies have a universal language, so every baby is born knowing these words and what they mean? Babies make limited sounds at birth because they havent yet developed the ability to make a wider range of sounds.”Neh” to one baby, in my opinion, might mean ” i am hungry” but to another it might be ” i am cold.” and could very well mean both. I think sounds newborns make are mistaken by this lady as language. To be honest the sounds are probably the baby exploring it’s ability to make sounds and mean nothing. I’ve seen babies make such sounds as describe above without needing what was associated with the sound. I think looking at a babies facial is a much better and more solid way of determining what the baby needs.
    I could be wrong on this, but this seems like a marketing hype to take advantage of excited expecting parents. I mean, Huggies and Pampers got the diaper area covered, so lets sell people a way to conversate with their baby. This lady really dont seem to have any scientific backing. When i see the headline “Scientists Prove Lady’s Claim That Babies Have Their Own Distinct Language!” from a credible source ( not Oprah) then maybe I will believe this is more than a way to to transfer money from bank account to hers.

  33. For those critics out there, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. If you had kids (which from some of the comments, I don’t think some of you do), you would do whatever it takes to satisfy them. So, if someone out there did a study and found a way to try and make life a little easy for new mothers, than why not try it. What does it hurt? Stop being blinded by the light (thinking she is out for cash only)and follow it instead (trial and error)!!!!!! It might surprise you!

  34. Hey, I don’t belive what she says, but maybe she’s right. THat’s her opinion, and it may be what babys are saying. Nobody knows but the babys.

  35. If you listened to a recording of Ms Dunstan herself in her many interviews you will realise that alot of your arguments are inappropriate. The term ‘language’ is merely a marketing tool and seems to have thrown every linguist blogger off the track. (As you can probably tell, I am the opposite of a linguist – an engineer). You will note that she herself says it’s not actually a language, but sound added to newborn reflexes such as the sucking reflex etc. I suggest that you listen to the woman and then make up your arguments, because there are already many independent verifications of the system from parents both online and via word of mouth to simply dismiss this without due thought.

  36. Who would want to buy those books and CDs anyway? Those five universal language words is all that I need!! Wanting to learn what the babies are trying to say beyond their “third month” of age, as to what they say these five words are only applicable of, is preposterous and a waste of research money, as these are just “newborn reflexes”, and could outgrow them quickly. The researchers termed it also as “universal” because every babies could to it, unless probably your baby has cleft palate/lip or other diseases that could hamper speech, or probably, your baby is just plain stupid. Now, that’s another research idea!!

  37. What a bunch of linguistic snobs! Obvious that none of you have children or you’d understand that babies from 0-3 months have very simple needs – to be fed, changed, burped, tummy rubbed or to have the siblings spikey toy removed from their cot. Lots of parents recognise that different cries mean different things, but for some of us, like myself, who were too exhausted to know if their own arses were on fire, having someone give you a practical way to differentiate these sounds and save on a lot of soul shattering screaming could be a Godsend. From reading all your comments, I haven’t heard one plausible reason why this woman might not be making sense. In fact, saying that the sound ‘neh’ comes from a combination of making the sucking reflex and crying at the same time, makes perfect sense to me. You people want to pull your heads out of your own backsides and start fornicating instead. maybe then you’ll have some kids and begin to get an understanding of what the rest of us are going through.

  38. zyxle, you sure know how to make procreation sound like an attractive proposition.

  39. “Having someone give you a practical way to differentiate these sounds and save on a lot of soul shattering screaming could be a Godsend”.
    That’s assuming the lady is right. There’s lots of stuff that appears in Women’s Weekly that someone must consider a godsend; that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be challenged. People who dare cast doubt on what housewives in Bowral firmly believe shouldn’t have to put up with being called ‘linguistic snobs’.
    (Incidentally, I will declare right here that I don’t have kids. But this ‘you don’t have kids so shutup’ kind of attitude doesn’t wash with me. It’s not one bit less arrogant than saying ‘you’re not a linguist so you wouldn’t have a clue’.)

  40. ok – now the Dunstan marketing team have posted their testimonials on YouTube. Which got me thinking….we could test the usefulness of this language system once and for all if Mums and Dads around the world would post their baby cries on YouTube, and everyone could have a go at identifying the words..it would be cheaper than buying a video, and after a while we could have a HUGE database of testimonials about whether the words were useful or not.
    Some what do you say – can you convince your friends with newborns to have a go?
    link to:

  41. I’m not suggesting, bathrobe, that Dunstan’s theory shouldn’t be challenged, but I found the lack of intelligent and informed skepticism on this page, annoying. Few of you posting negative comments seemed to have any knowledge of what the woman is actually suggesting. for instance, to suggest, as Melody did for example, that one couldn’t simply observe babies to come up with this language, is a little ridiculous. It’s only 5 sounds, after all. Also, to interpret her findings to mean that she thinks babies understand what they’re ‘saying’, as Lee suggested, shows a complete lack of understanding of her theory. babies don’t understand what they’re saying. What they understand is that they’re hungry. When babies are hungry, they instinctively start to suck. When they aren’t instantly gratified, they start to cry. the sound that is made from a cry that is issued through that sucking reflex is ‘neh’. All babies everyone have a sucking reflex, and all babies everywhere, cry. That is why the ‘language’ is universal. Similarly with the other sounds, it is a tightening of the chest or some other body position combined with the initial cry, or winge, that produces the sound.
    Anyone with children knows that if you can identify their need quickly, then you may be able to save the entire family a great deal of stress. Sometimes, even if you find the problem, but take too long to do it, the child just works themselves up into a frenzied state where they no longer know why they’re crying and can’t be consoled. Anyone who has ever experienced this would be far less inclined to be flippant with their comments.
    Now, if anyone could make an intelligent, thoughtful and informed suggestion as to why Dunstan’s theory is flawed, then I’d enjoy reading it.

Speak Your Mind