In the tender early days of a new romantic relationship, when lovers are driven by deep desire to appear in the best light, cutesy baby talk runs rampant. But why? Can we all agree that pet names like “sweet cheeks,” “honey bun,” and “cutie patootie” are probably some of the worst nicknames amorous couples can call each other, even ironically? (“Pumpkiny-wumpkiny” is objectively the worst, though).
Lovey-dovey language doesn’t stop, however, at cheesy nicknames that seem to weaponize rhyming reduplication. Baby talk, with nary a baby in sight, is common in romantic relationships, infecting many hapless lovers, regardless of age, with a viral, if not virile, speed. This kind of talk you find between lovers isn’t necessarily overtly salacious—but it’s nonetheless language that could be embarrassing if it becomes public. Enquiring minds want to know: just why are people so linguistically cruel to their loved ones? What’s good for babies, pets, and perhaps Australians can’t possibly be great for couples in love, can it? If dubious nicknames and baby talk and other cringeworthy intimate language are anything to go by, strange things happen to words when two otherwise reasonable people begin to develop a romantic bond.
When baby talk and other intimate language reaches the point where it could be used for blackmail, perhaps it’s time to consider that this linguistic register has the power to express love but also to affect reputations. Certainly the fear of scandal over a couple’s private love language has been the plot point of many a Ruritanian tale. There’s always been a textual tension around indiscrete private communication being publicly exposed, despite or maybe because of the appearance of privacy in online correspondence.
When Baby Talk Meets Blackmail
Even the world’s richest man isn’t immune. The front page story of the moment is Jeff Bezos’s revelation that the National Enquirer, helmed by David Pecker, (“Bezos exposes Pecker” is the unforgettably puntastic headline) apparently made a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to blackmail him over his private correspondence and photographs. Bezos is surprisingly, and somewhat bravely, taking a leaf out of the “publish and be damned” book in the style of one Duke of Wellington, who was himself a target of blackmail. But along with the threat of having his personal photographs revealed, there was a threat of having his language leaked—the Enquirer unkindly described his intimate correspondence with Lauren Sanchez as “sleazy text messages and gushing love notes.” While the revelation of an illicit affair is ostensibly the thing most feared by victims of blackmail, might it not be more of a social embarrassment to have your intimate language of love laid bare for millions to see and judge?
Why then do intimate couples frequently use and reciprocate this kind of talk, considering how embarrassing and socially unacceptable it’s considered by others? Not all romantic relationships play with pet names and baby talk and other more intimate language, it’s true. But studies have shown that a majority do, especially early on in the relationship. About 75% of one study’s informants admitted, under cover of anonymity, that they used baby talk in adult relationships.
A Question of Bonding
How do two complete strangers manage to become an intimate unit, romantic or otherwise?
Science often seeks to explain why some people are attracted to other people and how they form a stable relationship—and keep it that way. Countless research studies and popular commentary about love have pondered the whys and wherefores of romantic relationships—its dramas, its conflicts, its heady uncertainties—in terms of couples’ psychology, behavior, personality, identity, shared values, common interests, and particularly their body language in flirtation and courtship. Not surprisingly, if you share quite a lot of these traits in common it may be predictive of a mutual attraction.
A couple’s urge to merge—mirroring each other’s body language, even taking on the same mannerisms, perhaps even dressing alike—can seem pretty odd to outsiders who don’t belong to this slowly emerging culture of two. And that’s before you get to any linguistic quirks. Surprisingly, as Molly E. Ireland et al. point out, “often overlooked are the facts that couples actually talk with one another and that their conversations often serve as the basis of their attraction.”
Previous studies have focused on an individual’s language choices, such as whether they use “I” or “we” pronouns while in a relationship, and whether that bodes well for the relationship. (Spoiler: married couples who used “we” more often have greater marital satisfaction.) Fewer studies have looked specifically at the unique interaction of a pair’s linguistic engagement and reciprocity with each other. As it happens, a mirroring tendency exists for language use—couples, without realizing it, can start to talk alike. Ireland et al.’s study of couples’ instant messages and speed-dating transcripts finds that, even in their unremarkable, everyday language, the greater their “linguistic style match,” the more likely a pair is to be mutually attracted and/or have a stable relationship. People are often subconsciously reacting, reciprocating, and coordinating linguistically with their romantic partner, such that their everyday language begins to change.
…And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like (and I quote from academic research here) “How are you, my wittle wuv bunny?”
The Language is the Relationship
It just goes to show that the language of couplehood is not blandly transactional, ordinary, or just about exchanging information. It’s playful, and this linguistic play definitely has a serious purpose. Two people, even thrown together into some “meet cute” situation, may have plenty to talk about if they have a lot in common, but may never surpass the level of acquaintanceship to reach intimacy unless the way they use language takes a sudden turn for the creative, the funny, the silly, and as some might view it, the worse.
Some researchers go so far as to say that a couple’s language is the relationship. Mix in a bit of furtive thieves’ cant, the enigmatic codes of spies, the high-pitched baby talk of small children, and the idiomatic slang of sullen teenagers, and you might perhaps arrive at the often incomprehensible private language of lovers: speaker population of two.
Without this special language for two, the relationship would be very different. In a digital world where many are shooting their shot by sliding into other people’s DMs on social media, or sending their vulnerable, private thoughts instantly out into the ether by email and text, where once it was through slow-moving, secret letters and public telegrams, language is very often both the first salvo and the thing that sustains the relationship during absences. There are more ways than ever for two people to connect with each other and grow closer, daily, hourly, at an instant’s notice, all through their language. What happens to this language that has to express a deep intimacy to just one person, yet hide it all from outsiders at the same time?
There are actually many ways in which language, changing over time, knits itself tightly into the fabric of an intimate relationship, whether written or spoken, whether a romantic or even a close friendship or family bond. As a new and tentative thing, an intimate relationship craves an intimate space in which to develop. When intimate partners are apart from each other, what with the ubiquity of mobile phones, that space is often language-based, where what is shared is not always content, but rather signals of intimacy that ask for a response and reassurance, often in a fun way. Relationships, for some researchers, are largely about language play, like baby talk and nicknames, affectionate talk, shared conversational humor, even teasing insults and criticisms, which work to enhance a growing intimacy across a gulf of vulnerable uncertainty and build a unique identity of two, a pair against the world. Language play is what reduces that uncertainty between two people who don’t yet know each other well.
So…Why Baby Talk?
Diminutives, for example, often found in nicknames and baby talk, across many languages convey pragmatic senses such as smallness, cuteness, silliness familiarity, affection, intimacy… but also contempt for those traits. Baby talk is non-threatening, but it does put the initiator in a somewhat vulnerable place. It’s an easy thing to laugh at as an outsider, but for someone willing to engage in that language play, it’s a strong sign of connection. Between two adults, especially when it’s reciprocated, baby talk has been shown to be an important part of the bonding process, increasing and intensifying emotional attachment, and offering more relationship security, whether it’s between intimate friends or romantic partners. In fact, one of the few studies on the idiomatic language of romantic couples found that couples that engaged in this kind of language play were often more satisfied with their relationship.
In considering levels of intimacy, a spy might know a lot of background information about you, a stranger may have enough common likes and dislikes to carry on a conversation with you, but without a mutual, highly personal common ground that you both share, you’re not exactly friends. Jennifer Coates’ study on laughter and intimacy points out that set jokes can be understood by everyone, without context, but conversational humor demands a shared understanding and context between two before it’s understood, much less found funny. Friends happen to be experts in each other, sharing a history of these personal experiences and conversations that don’t have to be explained. But intimate friends, family, and partners go a step further—they know secrets about you.
Even if the relationship itself may not be forbidden or frowned upon, it contains at least these linguistic secrets and it’s thus vulnerable to the unsympathetic scrutiny of outsiders. Secrecy is highly desirable even if you have nothing to hide, simply because the language of intimacy that develops between two people is private, can only be understood by them, and can easily be misunderstood by others.
Once a Week
One such secret language was so successfully obscure it was used by a British prisoner of war for spy work. Captain Pat Reid, stuck in in a highly secure prison camp, apparently wrote to his girlfriend in a love code he’d once used to keep all his affairs secret but modified it to convey vital information about Nazi German troop movements that could be passed onto the War Office.
The closer you get to your closest friends and even more so your intimate partner, the more you build up shorthands, in-jokes, private references, personal idiomatic expressions, weird slang, and a shared conversational humor. These linguistic fun and games develop into a shared understanding of a sometimes cringingly awkward private language of love, and a special bond, just between you and your boo.