Vocal communication of magnitude across language, age, and auditory experience

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Agnes Scott College


Like many other vocalizing vertebrates, humans convey information about their body size through the sound of their voice. Vocalizations of larger animals are typically longer in duration, louder in intensity, and lower in frequency. We investigated people’s ability to use voice-size correspondences to communicate about the magnitude of external referents. First, we asked hearing children, as well as deaf children and adolescents, living in China to improvise nonlinguistic vocalizations to distinguish between paired items contrasting in magnitude (e.g. a long vs. short string, a big vs. small ball). Then we played these vocalizations back to adult listeners in the United States and China to assess their ability to correctly guess the intended referents. We find that hearing and deaf producers both signalled greater magnitude items with longer and louder vocalizations and with smaller formant spacing. Only hearing producers systematically used fundamental frequency, communicating greater magnitude with higher fo. The vocalizations of both groups were understandable to Chinese and American listeners, although accuracy was higher with vocalizations from older producers. American listeners relied on the same acoustic properties as Chinese listeners: both groups interpreted vocalizations with longer duration and greater intensity as referring to greater items; neither American nor Chinese listeners consistently used fo or formant spacing as a cue. These findings show that the human ability to use vocalizations to communicate about the magnitude of external referents is highly robust, extending across listeners of disparate linguistic and cultural backgrounds, as well as across age and auditory experience.

Bibliographic note

Not yet published as of 26/08/2021. Funding information: This work was funded in part by NSF-INSPIRE 1344279 and NSF-PAC 1734260 to GL.


Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 14 May 2021


  • cross-cultural, nonverbal communication, vocalization, sound symbolism, iconicity