Just in case you were wondering, the title of this little piece is a line from a hymn I often sing at funerals. It came to me as I was thinking about a little sentence embedded in a story I just read.
The other day the BBC News site featured a short story about babies and crying. Some smart guys in Germany I think have discovered that the way infants cry matches, somehow, the patterns of speech, the language sounds of their parents. I read the story and thought it was pretty amazing to learn how very much we “know” at such an early age. There is even a short audio example of two infants crying. The first one is a German baby and the second one is a French baby.
Aside from the fact that they are readily identifiable as recordings of crying babies, they are quite different. Scientists, at least the ones studying this, point to these differences as typical for the sound patterns of German and French speech. They conclude from this that infants are mimicking and practicing their native language, communicating as they can, from the very earliest.
How can this happen, one wonders? Well…
Among the other facts contained in the report is a small sentence which mentions almost in passing that babies in the womb are able to hear sounds, and respond?, fully three months before they are born. They have begun to understand, it is to be inferred from the story, that some sounds are speech. They certainly will come to understand that some voices are “closer” in so many ways to them than others.
Oddly enough, another story came my way from the BBC news site that day. This one presented a short overview of what takes place during the typical pregnancy. It discussed the various stages in the development of a child in its mother’s womb. I learned that an infant’s heart has begun to beat at three weeks of pregnancy.
Oh, I should apologize here and now for the words I am using. My constant references to infant and baby are not correct. You see, the articles are very scrupulous in the use of the word foetus (British spelling) when referring to the people (another bad word) I am calling infants and babies. I suppose that I cannot help it, though. I’m the kind of guy who insists, too, on calling his two front teeth his front teeth and not incisors. I also call a car’s motor the motor and not an internal combustion engine.
I guess that marks me as some kind of jerk.
Anyway, back to crying babies and the stories in the news. I began to notice something very odd as I read through the second story about “foetal” development. The anonymous author took pains on several occasions to note the stages at which diagnostic tests could be administered. These were recommended tests for, umm, abnormalities of one kind or another in the baby (oops) as it was growing inside its mother. I can’t remember if the word mother appeared in the article. I use it because,’ well, that’s the only word I can think of. Perhaps “host” would do as well? You tell me. Anyway, the article mentioned at least three times that here or there would be a nice place to find out if the baby had, oh say, Downs Syndrome or something else of that nature.
Left unsaid was what should be done then. But, take a guess what would be offered. And, guess what would be chosen 92% of the time.
A child who cannot speak yet can cry with the inflections of its soon to be mother tongue can only have learned to do so while growing inside its mother’s womb. What can learn to do that is already an individual making use of its developing senses to learn, to interact with its environment. It is a person in other words. A child whose heart beats at three weeks of pregnancy is another human being. But why pick that as a point of departure? From the first joining of sperm with egg it is fact and truth that the first cells have in them everything the last cells alive eighty or ninety years from that event will have in them of the signature of a new person.
The cry of an infant new born, the first sound he or she makes is a unique note sounded in the world, never heard before and made richer for it. The last sigh is a unique farewell.
To prevent that cry from being made or the sigh from breathing into eternity is a great crime.
Those of you interested can access the crying story here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8346058.stm
The other one, about “foetal” progress in its temporary “host” (an increasingly dangerous undertaking for the poor thing) may access that from the first story.