Ancestors may have created ‘iconic’ sounds as bridge to first languages

12.05.2021

Press release "Ancestors may have created ‘iconic’ sounds as bridge to first languages"

The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors to begin communicating with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures – giving rise to the unique human power to coin new words describing the world around us, a new study reveals.

It was widely believed that, in order to get the first languages off the ground, our ancestors first needed a way to create novel signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual signs whose form directly resembled the intended meaning.

However, an international research team, led by experts from the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin and the University of Birmingham, have discovered that iconic vocalisations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately than previously supposed.

The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand novel vocalizations for 30 different meanings common across languages and which might have been relevant in early language evolution.

These meanings spanned animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, snake, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, rock, water, meat, fruit), actions (gather, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, sharp, big, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).

The team published their findings in Scientific Reports, highlighting that the vocalizations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups from oral cultures such as speakers of Palikúr living in the Amazon forest and speakers of Daakie on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. Listeners from each language were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended referent of the vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.

“Until now, we thought that visible gestures constituted the main component that enabled the emergence of language. Our study demonstrates that language could also have originated from vocalizations. I found the relatively clear results astounding." commented Dr. Susanne Fuchs, group leader of laboratory phonology at ZAS, who led the study together with PhD student Aleksandra Ćwiek and two colleagues from Birmingham.

Aleksandra Ćwiek, PhD student at ZAS and Humboldt-University, commented: “Our results show that the acoustic domain has the iconic potential that enables us humans to understand each other without words. It is something that connects us all – from Japan to the Amazon. We have more in common than we think."

An online experiment allowed researchers to test whether a large number of diverse participants around the world were able to understand the vocalisations. A field experiment using 12 easy-to-picture meanings, allowed them to test whether participants living in predominantly oral societies were also able to understand the vocalisations.

They found that some meanings were consistently guessed more accurately than others. In the online experiment, for example, accuracy ranged from 98.6% for the action ‘sleep’ to 34.5% for the demonstrative ‘that’. Participants were best with the meanings ‘sleep’, ‘eat’, ‘child’, ‘tiger’, and ‘water’, and worst with ‘that’, ‘gather’, ‘dull’, ‘sharp’ and ‘knife’.

The researchers highlight that while their findings provide evidence for the potential of iconic vocalisations to figure in the creation of original spoken words, they do not detract from the hypothesis that iconic gestures also played a critical role in the evolution of human communication, as they are known to play in the modern emergence of signed languages.

Sound files – please credit University of Birmingham:
• Cut - https://mfr.osf.io/render?url=https://osf.io/ejzr9/?direct%26mode=render%26actio...
• Tiger - https://mfr.osf.io/render?url=https://osf.io/euwyn/?direct%26mode=render%26actio...
• Water - https://mfr.osf.io/render?url=https://osf.io/85ysk/?direct%26mode=render%26actio...
• Good - https://mfr.osf.io/render?url=https://osf.io/7wrcy/?direct%26mode=render%26actio...
 

For more information or interviews please contact:
Dr. Fabienne Salfner
Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit
Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, (ZAS)
salfner@leibniz-zas.de
Tel: +49 176 27805112
Tony Moran
International Communications Manager
University of Birmingham
t.moran@bham.ac.uk
+44 (0)782 783 2312
For out-of-hours enquiries, please call +44 (0) 7789 921 165

Contact for scientific information:
Aleksandra Ćwiek
Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), Berlin
E-Mail: cwiek@leibniz-zas.de

Original publication:
‘Novel Vocalizations are Understood across Cultures’ - Aleksandra Ćwiek, Susanne Fuchs, Christoph Draxler, Eva Liina Asu, Dan Dediu, Katri Hiovain, Shigeto Kawahara, Sofia Koutalidis, Manfred Krifka, Pärtel Lippus, Gary Lupyan, Grace E. Oh, Jing Paul, Caterina Petrone, Rachid Ridouane, Sabine Reiter, Nathalie Schümchen, Ádám Szalontai, Özlem Ünal-Logacev, Jochen Zeller, Bodo Winter, and Marcus Perlman in Scientific Reports.https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-8944

 

About the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), Berlin
The Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS) is a university-independent research institute located in the federal state of Berlin. Its objective is the investigation of natural language and its manifestation in individual languages. The aim is to better understand this central human ability and its biological, cognitive and social factors.

About the University of Birmingham
The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.

Participating research institutions include:
Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), Berlin, Germany and University of Birmingham, UK as well as Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München, Germany; University of Tartu, Estonia; Université Lumière Lyon 2, France; University of Helsinki, Finland; Keio University, Tokyo, Japan; Universität Bielefeld, Germany; University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA; Konkuk University, Seoul, Süd Korea; Agnes Scott College, Decatur, USA; CNRS & Aix-Marseille Université, Aix-en-Provence, France; CNRS & Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, France; University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark; Hungarian Research Centre for Linguistics, Budapest, Hungary; Istanbul Medipol University, Istanbul, Turkey and University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa