Look who's talking

Listen: Scientists have a new theory for the origin of language

Complex speech is one of the defining features of humans, so it makes sense that scientists want to learn more about its origins.

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A leading theory about the origins of language suggests early humans first used iconic gestures to convey meaning without the need for a mutual language.


Now, researchers from the University of Birmingham suggest iconic vocalizations may have played a similar role — and you can test the idea yourself.


To test the theory, researchers had participants from 28 languages listen to vocalizations gathered in a previous study and choose their meanings from a list of options.

Let’s see how your answers compare.

In the study, 98.6 percent of participants recognized the meaning of that sound: sleep. Actions were identified correctly 70.9 percent of the time, the highest of any word type.


Just under 90 percent of people recognized the meaning of that sound as a child. Of all nouns, those relating to humans had a 69.9 percent rate of accurate guesses.

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Participants were only slightly less likely (86.6 percent) to understand that this means tiger. Nouns relating to animals were accurately guessed about 75.6 percent of the time.

That sound was correctly identified as water by 82.1 percent of people.

The sound for cut was identified correctly 74.1 percent of the time.

Just 63.4 percent of people understood that sound as meaning good. Sounds for properties of things were hard to guess, with a 58.5 percent accuracy.


If you guessed that that sound meant knife, you’re among the 45.6 percent of people who got it right.


Didn’t get it? Don’t feel bad. Only 34.5 percent of people identified that as the sound for that. Overall, demonstratives like “that” were only guessed right 44.7 percent of the time.


Across 28 languages and 12 language groups, the researchers found that participants guessed better than random chance for 28 out of the 30 words studied.


The results lend credence to the idea that iconic vocalizations could have paved the way for complex language just as much as iconic gestures.

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