Iconicity can ground the creation of vocal symbols

Marcus Perlman, Rick Dale, Gary Lupyan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)
133 Downloads (Pure)


Studies of gestural communication systems find that they originate from spontaneously created iconic gestures. Yet, we know little about how people create vocal communication systems, and many have suggested that vocalizations do not afford iconicity beyond trivial instances of onomatopoeia. It is unknown whether people can generate vocal communication systems through a process of iconic creation similar to gestural systems. Here, we examine the creation and development of a rudimentary vocal symbol system in a laboratory setting. Pairs of participants generated novel vocalizations for 18 different meanings in an iterative ‘vocal’ charades communication game. The communicators quickly converged on stable vocalizations, and naive listeners could correctly infer their meanings in subsequent playback experiments. People's ability to guess the meanings of these novel vocalizations was predicted by how close the vocalization was to an iconic ‘meaning template’ we derived from the production data. These results strongly suggest that the meaningfulness of these vocalizations derived from iconicity. Our findings illuminate a mechanism by which iconicity can ground the creation of vocal symbols, analogous to the function of iconicity in gestural communication systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article number150152
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2015


  • experimental semiotics
  • iconicity
  • language evolution
  • vocalization


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