Grandma's Tales

December 7, 2006

Grammar – 17 Universal Baby Language or UBL

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:29 pm

The title “IT’S ALL TRUE! BABIES HAVE THEIR OWN SECRET LANGUAGE, AND NOW WE KNOW HOW TO UNDERSTAND IT!’ is sure to hook even those with only a passing interest in languages. So now we have a universal language? And babies speak it? Yeah, sort of. Read this story published in the New Zealand Herald and posted at Languagehat. Reserve your judgment till then.
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 sharp listening skills, identified the five key sounds after spending hours listening to her own son and other infants.

What is your first reaction? Mine was: Excuse me! And then I had to laugh. I read the comments that followed the post. And I’m still laughing…


[1] Well, all I can say is, I’ve achieved a new understanding of what “researcher” can mean. ”
[2] That “researcher” was on Oprah a few weeks ago. So you know it’s legit. Right?
Posted by: Jeff
[3] 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.
Posted by: Ran
[4] It doesn’t bother me so much that someone’s mother thinks she’s found the language all babies speak, but more so that folks in the media found this legitimate. Not that the phenomenon of credulity in pop media is anything new.
Posted by: Erin
[5] I’m trying to figure out how “owh” and “eairh” are supposed to be pronounced. Maybe all words in UBL end in [h]?
Posted by: KCinDC
[6] Sometimes I wonder if I should stop formally studying linguistics. 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.
Posted by: Eskandar Jabbari
[7] 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.
Posted by: Aaron
[8] 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.
Posted by: KCinDC
That is fantastic! Forget a hundred words for snow – here’s a language completely devoted to discomfort. Eat that, Eskimos!
Posted by: SN
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!
Posted by: Tulugaq

There were other comments too. I called my mom, who I’m sure has seen more babies than Dunstan, read out the report, and asked her what she thought of it. She was very impressed someone had researched baby language. She said, “Yes, when they cry I can make out if they are crying because they are hungry or because they are wet or soggy or because they have a tummyache.” She then began to demonstrate the various sounds.

“Did you record that?” my husband (Man of the House – MOH) asked. I hadn’t. I was choking with laughter. MOH said, “You lost a million dollars in DVD rights!”

I spoke out the words ‘neh’, ‘owh‘, “eh’, ‘eairh’ and ‘heh’, to mom. I must tell you I took great care to  pronounce them in a neutral accent. My mom doesn’t follow “propah British” or a “Yankee drawl”. When she hears American, she always asks,  “Why do they speak through their nose?” She doesn’t catch words rendered in north Indian accents either. I’m sure I did my best to be accent-free.

“Do you have a problem with your throat?” she asked. “Here’s what you should do. Take a glass of hot milk…” I explained the significance of these sounds. “Which part of the world is this baby from?” I told her. “Don’t babies laugh, gurgle there? Indian babies make happy sounds you know.  Even in huts you can hear them. And when they cry, you can tell what they want.”

I don’t know if mom is planning to write a book on this.

BTW, are you voting for the Taj Mahal to be included in the new 7 Wonders of the World list?  Go to, if you want to. You could also vote on news channels, I guess.






  1. hi
    i am surprised that campaigning for the taj mahal is not undergone in full flow, thoughquite of us are aware of this

    look at the guys at ecuador, every here and there they send billboards asking people to vote for machu pichu

    i think we also need to do something

    well atleast you have done the 1st step by posting it on your blog 😉

    since i have 7 votes(we all do after registring) i will vote for taj as well as machupichu

    Comment by Varun Chablani — December 8, 2006 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Varun,
    Good point. Most people don’t even know this is happening. We as a people don’t really care about our monuments, do we? We try to sell areas around the Taj for commercial development and write modern love stories on the inner roofs of our ancient buildings. Sigh!
    When you vote, you will split it 6 for the Taj and 1 for Machu Pichu, won’t you, considering our mausoleum in marble needs all the support it can get? 🙂

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — December 8, 2006 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

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