The ‘missing link’ that helped our ancestors to begin communicating with each other through language may have been iconic sounds, rather than charades-like gestures — giving rise to the unique human power to coin new words describing the world around us, a new study reveals.
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.
However, an international research team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, have discovered that iconic vocalisations can convey a much wider range of meanings more accurately than previously supposed.
The researchers tested whether people from different linguistic backgrounds could understand novel vocalizations for 30 different meanings common across languages and which might have been relevant in early language evolution.
These meanings spanned animate entities, including humans and animals (child, man, woman, tiger, snake, deer), inanimate entities (knife, fire, rock, water, meat, fruit), actions (gather, cook, hide, cut, hunt, eat, sleep), properties (dull, sharp, big, small, good, bad), quantifiers (one, many) and demonstratives (this, that).
The team published their findings in Scientific Reports, highlighting that the vocalizations produced by English speakers could be understood by listeners from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Participants included speakers of 28 languages from 12 language families, including groups from oral cultures such as speakers of Palikur living in the Amazon forest and speakers of Daakie on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. Listeners from each language were more accurate than chance at guessing the intended referent of the vocalizations for each of the meanings tested.
Read more: The Archaeology News Network