People Can Create Iconic Vocalizations to Communicate Various Meanings to Naïve Listeners

Marcus Perlman, Gary Lupyan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)
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The innovation of iconic gestures is essential to establishing the vocabularies of signed languages, but might iconicity also play a role in the origin of spoken words? Can people create novel vocalizations that are comprehensible to naïve listeners without prior convention? We launched a contest in which participants submitted non-linguistic vocalizations for 30 meanings spanning actions, humans, animals, inanimate objects, properties, quantifiers and demonstratives. The winner was determined by the ability of naïve listeners to infer the meanings of the vocalizations. We report a series of experiments and analyses that evaluated the vocalizations for: (1) comprehensibility to naïve listeners; (2) the degree to which they were iconic; (3) agreement between producers and listeners in iconicity; and (4) whether iconicity helps listeners learn the vocalizations as category labels. The results show contestants were able to create successful iconic vocalizations for most of the meanings, which were largely comprehensible to naïve listeners, and easier to learn as category labels. These findings demonstrate how iconic vocalizations can enable interlocutors to establish understanding in the absence of conventions. They suggest that, prior to the advent of full-blown spoken languages, people could have used iconic vocalizations to ground a spoken vocabulary with considerable semantic breadth.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2634
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 8 Feb 2018


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