Look who's talking

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

Read more science stories here.

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