Repeated imitation makes human vocalizations more word-like

Pierce Edmiston, Marcus Perlman, Gary Lupyan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
129 Downloads (Pure)


People have long pondered the evolution of language and the origin of words. Here, we investigate how conventional spoken words might emerge from imitations of environmental sounds. Does the repeated imitation of an environmental sound gradually give rise to more word-like forms? In what ways do these forms resemble the original sounds that motivated them (i.e. exhibit iconicity)? Participants played a version of the children's game ‘Telephone’. The first generation of participants imitated recognizable environmental sounds (e.g. glass breaking, water splashing). Subsequent generations imitated the previous generation of imitations for a maximum of eight generations. The results showed that the imitations became more stable and word-like, and later imitations were easier to learn as category labels. At the same time, even after eight generations, both spoken imitations and their written transcriptions could be matched above chance to the category of environmental sound that motivated them. These results show how repeated imitation can create progressively more word-like forms while continuing to retain a resemblance to the original sound that motivated them, and speak to the possible role of human vocal imitation in explaining the origins of at least some spoken words.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRoyal Society of London. Proceedings B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1874
Early online date7 Mar 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Mar 2018


Dive into the research topics of 'Repeated imitation makes human vocalizations more word-like'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this