The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors begin to communicate with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures – giving rise to the unique human power to create new words describing the world around us, a new study reveals.
It was widely believed that in order to get the first languages to take off, our ancestors first needed a way to create new signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual cues whose shape directly resembled to the desired meaning.
However, an international research team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Center General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, has found that iconic vocalizations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately. than previously assumed.
The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand new vocalizations for 30 different meanings common to all languages that might have been relevant in the early evolution of languages.
These meanings covered animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, serpent, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, stone, water, meat, fruit), actions (gathering, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, pointed, large, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).
The team published their results in Scientific reports, pointing out that vocalizations produced by English speakers can be understood by listeners from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups of oral cultures such as Palikúr speakers living in the Amazon rainforest and Daakie speakers on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Listeners in each language were more precise than chance at guessing the intended referent of vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.
Co-author Dr Marcus Perlman, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, said: “Our study fills a crucial piece of the language evolution puzzle, suggesting the possibility that all languages – spoken as well as signed – – may have iconic origins.
“The ability to use iconicity to create universally understandable vocalizations may underlie the broad semantic scope of spoken languages, playing a role similar to representational gestures in the formation of sign languages.”
Co-author Dr Bodo Winter, Lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Our results challenge the oft-cited idea that vocalizations have limited potential for iconic representation, demonstrating that ‘In the absence of words, people can use vocalizations to communicate a variety of meanings – effectively serving intercultural communication when people do not have a common language. “
An online experiment allowed researchers to test whether a large number of diverse participants around the world were able to understand vocalizations. A field experiment using 12 easy-to-imagine meanings allowed them to test whether participants living in predominantly spoken societies were also able to understand vocalizations.
They found that some meanings were always guessed more accurately than others. In the online experiment, for example, the accuracy ranged from 98.6% for the “sleep” action to 34.5% for the demonstrative “it”. Participants were best with the meanings “sleep”, “eat”, “child”, “tiger” and “water”, and worse with “that”, “gather”, “dull”, “sharp” and “knife” .
The researchers point out that while their findings provide evidence for the potential of iconic vocalizations to feature in the creation of original spoken words, they do not detract from the hypothesis that iconic gestures have also played a critical role in the evolution of human communication, as it is. known to play in the modern emergence of sign languages.