Dunstan Baby Language is a claim about infantile speech patterns and language acquisition in humans. The claim is that across cultures and linguistic groups there are five sounds, each with a meaning, that are used by infants during the beginning of the language acquisition period. The hypothesis was developed by Australian former mezzo-soprano, Priscilla Dunstan, and has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Between 0-3 months, infants make what Dunstan calls sound reflexes. According to Dunstan, we all have reflexes, like sneezes, hiccups, and burps, that all have a recognizable pattern when sound is added to the reflex. There are other reflexes that all babies experience, and when sound is added to these, a distinct, preemptive “cry” will occur before the infant breaks into what Dunstan calls the hysterical cry. Dunstan claims that these preemptive cries can indicate what the infant requires (e.g., food, comfort, sleep, etc.), and they escalate to the hysterical cry if they are not answered. As the infant matures past 3 months in vocalization, the sound reflexes become replaced with more elaborate babbling.
According to Dunstan, the five universal words (or sound reflexes) used by infants are:
I’m hungry – An infant uses the sound reflex “Neh” to communicate their hunger. The sound is produced when the sucking reflex is triggered, and the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth.
I’m sleepy – An infant uses the sound reflex “Owh” to communicate that they are tired. The sound is produced much like an audible yawn.
I’m experiencing discomfort – An infant uses the sound reflex “Heh” to communicate stress, discomfort, or perhaps that they need a fresh diaper. The sound is produced by a response to a skin reflex, such as feeling sweat or itchiness in the bum.
I have lower gas – An infant uses the sound reflex “Eairh” to communicate they have flatulence or an upset stomach. The sound is produced when trapped air from a belch that is unable to release and travels to the stomach where the muscles of the intestine tighten to force the air bubble out. Often, this sound will indicate that a bowel movement is in progress, and the infant will bend its knees, bringing the legs toward the torso. This leg movement assists in the ongoing process.
I need to burp – An infant uses the sound reflex “Eh” to communicate that they need to be burped. The sound is produced when a large bubble of trapped air is caught in the chest, and the reflex is trying to release this out of the mouth.