Sounds made by our ancestors to describe everything from ‘tiger’ to ‘water’ are the root of all languages, and can be understood by anyone, a study claims.
A team from the University of Birmingham tested whether people from different language backgrounds could understand these ‘iconic sounds,’ some grunt-like and others a mimic of real world things like animal calls and running water.
They found that the ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors to begin communicating with each other through language may have been these sounds.
Listeners from each language, ranging from small tribes to nations, were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended meaning behind the sound.
This goes against earlier theories that early humans used charades-like gestures rather than words to bridge the gap to the first languages.
Study authors say these ‘iconic sounds’ to describe what we see, do and want, give rise to the unique human power to coin new words describing the world around us.
Iconic sounds made by our ancestors to describe everything from ‘tiger’ to ‘water’ are the root of all languages, and can be understood by anyone, a study claims
HOW TO TEST ‘ICONIC SOUNDS’ AND THEIR MEANINGS
Researchers carried out an online and a field experiment to test ‘iconic sounds’ and their meanings.
They found that some meanings were consistently guessed more accurately.
In the online experiment, for example, accuracy ranged from 98.6 per cent for the action ‘sleep‘ to 34.5 per cent for the demonstrative ‘that‘.
Participants were best with the meanings ‘sleep‘, ‘eat‘, ‘child‘, ‘tiger‘, and ‘water‘.
They were worst with ‘that‘, ‘gather‘, ‘dull‘, ‘sharp‘ and ‘knife‘.
It was widely believed that, in order to get the first languages off the ground, our ancestors first needed a way to create novel signals that could be understood by others, relying on visual signs whose form directly resembled the intended meaning.
The authors of this new study discovered that iconic vocalisations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately than previously supposed.
These meanings spanned animate entities, inanimate entities, properties, quantifiers and demonstratives to paint a detailed picture.
A few sounds covered a wide picture, with sounds for humans and animals covering everything from child, man, woman, tiger, snake and deer.
Inanimate entities such as knife, fire, rock, water, meat and fruit also had their own sounds that could be widely understood without further explanation.
The team say even actions, such as gather, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat and sleep had ‘iconic sounds’, as did properties like dull, sharp, big, small, good and bad, alongside quantifiers like one and many, and demonstratives like this and that.
Study authors say their findings highlight that vocalisations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds if they are linked to these ‘iconic sounds’.
Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups from oral cultures such as speakers of Palikúr living in the Amazon forest and speakers of Daakie on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.
Co-author Dr Marcus Perlman, Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, said the study fills a crucial piece of the puzzle, adding that it suggests the possibility that all languages – spoken as well as signed – may have iconic origins dating back to our earliest ancestors.
A team from the University of Birmingham tested whether people from different language backgrounds could understand these ‘ iconic sounds,’ some grunt-like and others a mimic of real world things like animal calls and running water
HOW DO DIFFERENT BRAIN CIRCUITS AFFECT OUR ABILITY TO LEARN LANGUAGE?
Researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center analyzed the findings of 16 studies that examined language learning in two systems in the brain: declarative and procedural memory.
According to the researchers, the ability to remember words of a particular language is linked to the ability to learn using declarative memory.
Grammar abilities, on the other hand, were linked to procedural memory in children learning their native language.
For adults, learning a foreign language first correlated with declarative memory, before later moving on to procedural memory.
The phenomenon was seen consistently across several languages, including English, French, Finnish, and Japanese.
‘The ability to use iconicity to create universally understandable vocalisations may underpin the vast semantic breadth of spoken languages, playing a role similar to representational gestures in the formation of signed languages,’ he said.
Co-author Dr Bodo Winter said the discovery acts to ‘challenge the often-cited idea that vocalisations have limited potential for iconic representation.’
He said they are ‘demonstrating that in the absence of words people can use vocalisations to communicate a variety of meanings – serving effectively for cross-cultural communication when people lack a common language.’
An online experiment allowed researchers to test whether a large number of diverse participants around the world were able to understand the vocalisations.
An additional field experiment using 12 easy-to-picture meanings, allowed them to test whether participants living in predominantly oral societies were also able to understand the vocalisations.
They found that some meanings were consistently guessed more accurately than others.
In the online experiment, for example, accuracy ranged from 98.6 per cent for the action ‘sleep’ to 34.5 per cent for the demonstrative ‘that’.
Participants were best with the meanings ‘sleep’, ‘eat’, ‘child’, ‘tiger’, and ‘water’, and worst with ‘that’, ‘gather’, ‘dull’, ‘sharp’ and ‘knife’.
The team say their study doesn’t take away from the fact iconic gestures also played a critical role in the evolution of human communication.
The findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.