Linguistic communication requires speakers to mutually agree on the meanings of words, but how does such a system first get off the ground? One solution is to rely on iconic gestures: visual signs whose form directly resembles or otherwise cues their meaning without any previously established correspondence. However, it is debated whether vocalizations could have played a similar role. We report the first extensive cross-cultural study investigating whether people from diverse linguistic backgrounds can understand novel vocalizations for a range of meanings. In two comprehension experiments, we tested whether vocalizations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from 28 languages from 12 language families. Listeners from each language were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended referent of the vocalizations for each of the meanings tested. Our findings challenge the often-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.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was funded by a grant for the PSIMS project (DFG XPrag.de, FU 791/6-1) for AC and SF; DD was funded by IDEXLYON Fellowship grant 16-IDEX-0005. We would like to thank Mohammad Ali Nazari, Samer Al Moubayed, Anna Ayrapetyan, Carla Bombi Ferrer, Nataliya Bryhadyr, Chiara Celata, Ioana Chitoran, Taehong Cho, Soledad Dominguez, Cornelia Ebert, Mattias Heldner, Mariam Heller, Louis Jesus, Enkeleida Kapia, Soung-U Kim, James Kirby, Jorge Lucero, Konstantina Margiotoudi, Mariam Matiashvili, Feresteh Modaressi, Scott Moisik, Oliver Niebuhr, Catherine Pelachaud, Zacharia Pourtskhvanidze, Pilar Prieto, Vikram Ramanarayanan, Oksana Rasskazova, Daniel Recasens, Amélie Rochet-Capellan, Mariam Rukhadze, Johanna Schelhaas, Vera Schlovin, Frank Seifart, Stavros Skopeteas, people of the SOS children’s village Armenia, Katarzyna Stoltmann, and Martti Vainio for being involved in the translation or distribution of the survey.
© 2021, The Author(s).
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