Linguists discover 30 sounds that may have allowed communication before words existed.
- What did the first person who wanted to speak say?
- New research suggests that there are lots of sounds that everyone understands.
- These sounds may have allowed the first exchanges that gave birth to language.
As hard as it is sometimes to get a conversation started, imagine how difficult it must have been before words existed. Linguists have long wondered how verbal language began. Some form of communication must have been in place to get the whole thing going. Maybe it was gestures.
Now, a new study published in Scientific Reports by linguists at the University of Birmingham (UBir) in the UK and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics in Berlin proposes another idea: Verbal communication may have begun at least partly with "iconic" mouth-produced sounds whose meanings were inherently obvious to anyone who heard them. (The researchers use the word "iconic" to mean that these sounds represent things.)
The importance of these sounds may also extend beyond their role as the ultimate conversation starters, says co-author Marcus Perlman of UBir. "Our study fills in a crucial piece of the puzzle of language evolution, suggesting the possibility that all languages — spoken as well as signed — may have iconic origins."
30 iconic sounds
Credit: Alexander Pokusay /
The researchers have posted a few of these iconic sounds: "cut," "tiger," "water," and "good." (Note: These audio files won't play in Apple's Safari browser.) The study reveals that there are a lot more of these sounds than previously appreciated, and likely enough to form a bridge to language development.
Co-author UBir's Bodo Winter explains:
"Our findings challenge the often-cited idea that vocalizations have limited potential for iconic representation, demonstrating that in the absence of words people can use vocalizations to communicate a variety of meanings — serving effectively for cross-cultural communication when people lack a common language."
The researchers compiled a list of 30 iconic-sound candidates that likely would have been of use to the earliest speakers. These included mouth noises that could represent:
- animate beings — "child," "man," "woman," "snake," "tiger," "deer"
- inanimate objects — "fire," "rock," "meat," "water," "knife," "fruit"
- activities — "eat," "sleep," "cut," "cook," "gather," "hunt," "hide"
- descriptors — "good," "bad," "small," "big" "dull," "sharp"
- quantities — "one," "many"
- demonstrative words — "this," "that"
Was "nom, nom" the sound for eating?
Credit: Aleksandra Ćwiek, et al. / Scientific Reports
Making a list — and making noises — is one thing; finding out if anyone understands them is another. The researchers tested out their iconic sounds in two different experiments.
In an online experiment, speakers of 25 different languages were asked to match the meaning of iconic sounds to six written labels. They listened to three performances for each of the 30 candidates, 90 recordings in all.
Participants correctly identified the sounds' meaning roughly 65 percent of the time.
Some meanings were more readily understood than others. "Sleep" was correctly identified by almost 99 percent, as opposed to "that," understood by only 35 percent. The most often understood sounds were "eat," "child," "sleep," "tiger," and "water." The least? "That," "gather," "sharp," "dull," and "knife."
The researchers next conducted field experiments to capture the meaningfulness of the sounds in oral cultures with inconsistent literacy levels. For these people, researchers played twelve iconic sounds for animals and inanimate objects as listeners identified each from a grid of pictures. The volunteers correctly identified the sounds' meanings about 56 percent of the time, again above the level of chance.
The universal roots of language
In addition to being the sounds that facilitated the birth of language, the authors of the study wonder if such commonly understood sounds may also be a factor in the similarities that exist between different modern languages that don't share a common root language. They cite other research that found "vocalizations for 25 different emotions were identifiable across cultures with above-chance accuracy."
"The ability to use iconicity to create universally understandable vocalizations," says Perlman, "may underpin the vast semantic breadth of spoken languages, playing a role similar to representational gestures in the formation of signed languages."
The popular game has a backstory rife with segregation, inequality, intellectual theft, and outlandish political theories.
- The streets on a classic Monopoly board were lifted from Atlantic City.
- Here's what it looks like if we transport those places back onto a map.
- Monopoly started out as its opposite: a game explaining the evil of monopolies.
Atlantic City's crowded Boardwalk, in front of hotels Schlitz and Dunlop, ca. 1913.Credit: Geo. A. McKeague Co., Atlantic City, New Jersey – public domain.
There have been several attempts to turn Monopoly the game into a Hollywood movie, one with Ridley Scott directing, another starring Kevin Hart. If none have succeeded so far, it's not for lack of an exciting backstory.
Dig deep, and you'll find racial segregation, economic inequality, intellectual property theft, and outlandish political theories. But let's start with the board—a map of sorts and a story in itself.
There's a customized Monopoly board not just for virtually any country in the world but also for movie and TV franchises (Avengers, Game of Thrones), brand experiences (Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson) and just about anything else (bass fishing, chocolate, the Grateful Dead).
To aficionados of the game, however, the names of the streets on the "classic" board have that special quality of authenticity, from lowly Baltic Avenue to fancy Park Place. Those places sound familiar not just if you like Monopoly, but also if you drive around Atlantic City, New Jersey's slightly run-down seaside casino town.
In fact, all the street names were taken from (or near) the city once nicknamed "America's Playground." Going about town, it's almost like you're traveling on the board itself. No wonder its other nickname is "Monopoly City."
This map transposes the streets on the board back onto the map, maintaining the color scheme that groups them from cheap (dark purple) to expensive (dark blue). Here's how they run.
The Monopoly board takes its street names from Atlantic City and a few neighboring places.Credit: Courtesy of Davis DeBard.
Mediterranean Avenue and Baltic Avenue are parallel streets in the middle of town, running southwest to northeast. They are perpendicular to most other streets on the board, and as such, cross or touch five other colors.
Three avenues in the east of town. Oriental runs southwest to northeast and crosses Vermont and Connecticut, which run parallel to each other.
Three streets branching off Pacific Avenue: Virginia Avenue, a long street towards the northwest; and St. Charles Place and States Avenue, two short spurs towards the southeast. St. Charles Place is no more; it made way for a hotel-casino called the Showboat Atlantic City.
New York and Tennessee Avenues run parallel and next to each other, northwest to southeast, the former all the way to the Boardwalk. St. James Place is in between both, south of Pacific Avenue.
Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois Avenues are the furthest west of the five street groups running northwest to southeast. In the 1980s, Illinois Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
Past O'Donnell Memorial Park—featuring a rotunda dedicated to Atlantic City's World War I soldiers—Atlantic Avenue continues west to Ventnor City as Ventnor Avenue. It is pictured as an inset (left) on this map, which also features Marvin Gardens. That place, in Margate City, is actually spelled Marven Gardens—an error for which Parker Brothers apologized to the local residents only in 1995.
These opulent streets are well-connected in more than one sense. Green is the only color to touch every other color.
The Boardwalk is as huge as Park Place is diminutive. Both are close to the beachfront, the most desirable location in any seaside resort.
The darker history of Monopoly
These names weren't picked at random. In the early 1930s, various informal versions of Monopoly were played throughout the northeastern United States, with local street names inserted for each city. The game's appearance and rules were perfected as it was being played. Around that time, an Atlantic City realtor named Jesse Railford hit upon an innovation: to put not just names but also prices on the properties on the board. Since he knew the lay of the land in his home city, those prices reflected the hierarchy of real estate values at that time.
That hierarchy and those prices were informed by the segregation that was rife in 1930s America. As one of the gateways of the Great Migration in the early 20th century, Atlantic City was a waystation for countless African-Americans leaving behind the stifling oppression of the South for better economic opportunities in the North. However, what they encountered on the way and upon arrival was the same racism, in slightly different form.
Railford played the game with the Harveys, who lived on Pennsylvania Avenue. They had previously lived on Ventnor Avenue and had friends on Park Place—all of which fall into the pricier color categories on the board.
In 1930s Atlantic City, these were wealthy and exclusive areas, and "exclusive" also meant no Black residents. They lived in low-cost areas like Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues; the latter street is actually where the Harveys' maid called home. In many local hotels at the time, African-Americans were only welcome as workers, not as guests. Atlantic City schools and beaches were segregated.
Belying both the binary prejudices of the time and the sliding price scale of the Monopoly board, Atlantic City back then was in fact a place of opportunity where a diverse range of communities flourished. Black businesses thrived on Kentucky Avenue. Count Basie played the Paradise Club on Illinois Avenue. There was a Black beach at the end of Indiana Avenue. For Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis, people headed to Oriental Avenue. New York Avenue had some of the first gay bars in the U.S.
Lizzie Magie (née Phillips), the anti-monopolist who invented… Monopoly.Credit: public domain
It should have been called "Anti-Monopoly"
An Atlantic City-based board was sold to Parker Brothers by Charles Darrow, who claimed to have invented the game in his basement. Parker Brothers marketed the game as Monopoly from 1935. The rights to the game transferred to Hasbro when it acquired Parker Brothers in 1991.
But Darrow didn't invent Monopoly. The original idea, as became widely known only decades after its "official" launch, came from Lizzie Magie (1866-1948), née Elizabeth J. Phillips.
Magie was a woman of many talents and trades. She worked as a stenographer, a typist, and a news reporter; she wrote poems and short stories; she was a comedian, an actress, and a feminist (she once published an ad to auction herself off as a "young woman American slave," to make the point that only white men were truly free); and she patented an invention that made typewriting easier.
Despite that impressive resume, she is now remembered mainly—and barely so—as the inventor of Monopoly. Except that the board game she developed was called The Landlord's Game. She patented it in 1904 and re-patented a revised version in 1924. The game was innovative because of its circular pattern—most board games at the time were linear. But its real point was economic, political, and ultimately, fiscal. The Landlord's Game illustrated Magie's belief in what was later called Georgism.
Known as the "single tax movement" and popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its concepts were formulated by the economist Henry George. He suggested that rather than taxing labor, trade, or sales, governments should derive their funding only from taxing land and the natural resources that derive from it.
As already observed by earlier thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, a land tax is economically more efficient than other taxes, since it places no burden on economic activity. It would also reduce property speculation, eliminate boom and bust cycles, and even out economic inequality.
Although Georgist ideas were influential for a while and continue to be discussed—among others by Ralph Nader during his 2004 presidential candidacy—they are no longer a vital political force, except in the related field of emissions trading. One popular counterargument to modern Georgism, now also (but not entirely interchangeably) known as "geoism," "geolibertarianism," and "earth-sharing," is that government expenditure has increased by so much since George's day that it can no longer be covered by a land tax alone.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, Magie devised The Landlord's Game to educate its players about the evils of real estate monopolies and, implicitly, about the benefits of a single tax on land.
The Landlord's Game, Lizzie Magie's forgotten precursor to Monopoly.Credit: Thomas Forsyth, owner of The Landord's Game® / public domain
She created two sets of rules: an anti-monopolist one, called Prosperity, in which all were rewarded for any wealth created; and a monopolist one, called Monopoly, in which the aim was to crush one's opponents by creating monopolies. In the latter version, when a player owns all the streets of one color, they can charge double rent and erect houses and hotels on the properties.
Taken together, these two versions were meant to illustrate the evil of monopolies and the benefit of a more cooperative approach to wealth creation. It's very telling of human nature that it's the opponent-crushing version that came out the winner. But, in the light of what happened to Magie, perhaps not entirely surprising.
When Darrow claimed Monopoly as his own, Magie protested. In the end, her patent was bought out by Parker Brothers for a mere $500, without any residual earnings. Parker Brothers continued to acknowledge Darrow as the inventor of the game. Magie's role was not recognised until decades later.
For more on the intersection of Monopoly, Atlantic City geography and 1930s segregation, read this article in The Atlantic by Mary Pilon. She is also the author of a book on the subject, called The Monopolists.
Many thanks to Robert Capiot for alerting me to the article. And many thanks to mapmaker Davis DeBard for permitting the use of his work. Follow him here.
Strange Maps #1078
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scans show similar activity to what occurs when you think about yourself.
It's really remarkable how seriously we take the fortunes of fictional characters. We care what happens to the people that we know perfectly well are simply words on a page or a screen. That they exist only in a writer's—and then in our—imagination somehow makes little difference. The best fictional characters stay with us, and we miss them when their stories end. We're weird.
Scientists from Ohio State University have published a study that describes just what is going on in people's heads when they invest in fictional characters. According to lead author of the study Timothy Broom, "When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves." It would seem what's going on is that we identify with these characters to the extent that we—at least somewhat—become them.
This kind of identification can impact our real lives, too. As the study notes, there are undoubtedly more educators in the world because of Robin Williams' Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society," more doctors thanks to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," and more than a few attorneys who got the idea for their careers from Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Conducting research in Westeros
The researchers used characters from HBO's "Game of Thrones": Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte. They chose the series due to its massive popularity and because the personalities of its characters were diverse enough that participants in the study would be more likely to find one they identified with.
The study took place over the course of GoT's seventh season. There were 19 participants in the study, all fans of the show, ranging in age from 18-37 years with a median age of 24. Ten were female, nine male, and all were right-handed and deemed to be good fMRI candidates — an fMRI shows changes in blood flow that indicate activity.
This is your brain on fiction
Credit: Judeus Samson/Unsplash
The study had two phases.
First, participants responded to questions asked in two well-regarded questionnaires: the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI) and the Transportability Scale. They were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel."
Next, each participant's brain was scanned in a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) device as they were shown a series of names: their own, any of nine pre-selected personal friends, or a Thrones character. Beneath each name was a descriptor such as "smart," "trustworthy," "lonely," or "sad," and the individual was asked to state whether the attribute was applicable by saying "yes" or "no."
The researchers were most interested in activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). It's known from previous research that when we think of ourselves, activity in the vMPFC increases.
As the researchers predicted, those with lower scores on the IRI and Transportability Scale had the greatest activity in the vMPFC when they thought about themselves, somewhat less when they thought about their friends, and the least activity of all when they thought about the characters.
On the other hand, people with higher tests scores—those who had reported that they often identified with fictional characters—were seen as having higher levels of activity in the vMPFC than other participants when they were considering the characters, especially when they were thinking about characters they liked or related to.
Co-author of the study Dylan Wanger suggests that our identification with fictional characters may be a kind of pleasurable role-playing: "For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others' eyes and return from those experiences changed."
"What previous studies have found," Wanger says, "is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes intwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains."
Next time you listen to scary campfire stories, sit with a friend who has aphantasia.
A strong imagination is generally viewed as being a good thing, even if at times an over-active one can result in self-induced terror as you repeat to yourself, "Just because I can vividly picture something terrible happening doesn't mean it will."
A study from researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia suggests that a visual imagination may actually be a requirement for experiencing fear. It suggests some people are less likely to be frightened simply because they lack the imagination it requires. This also means visual stimuli have a special connection to fear and perhaps other emotional experiences.
The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Credit: Martin Villadsen/Adobe Stock/Big Think
It's known that some people have trouble picturing things in their minds. This is called "mind-blindness," or more clinically, "aphantasia." The UNSW Sydney researchers conducted experiments to see if people with aphantasia were harder to scare.
It's believed that aphantasia affects between two and five percent of people, and science is just beginning to understand it. Says the study's senior author Joel Peterson of UNSW Science's Future Minds Lab, "Aphantasia is neural diversity. It's an amazing example of how different our brain and minds can be."
Previous research on aphantasia at UNSW found that it's associated with a general widespread pattern of altered cognitive process, including memory, imagination, and dreams.
Pearson says, "Aphantasia comes in different shapes and sizes. Some people have no visual imagery, while other people have no imagery in one or all of their other senses. Some people dream while others don't."
The new research connects aphantasia for the first time to skin conductivity, a worthy finding all by itself. "This evidence further supports aphantasia as a unique, verifiable phenomenon," says co-author Rebecca Keogh. "This work may provide a potential new objective tool which could be used to help to confirm and diagnose aphantasia in the future."
The current study was prompted by comments made on an aphantasia message boards expressing a disinterest in fiction for people with the condition.
Imagining disturbing imagery when you read scary stories
Credit: pure julia/Unsplash/Big Think
The experiments involved 22 people with aphantasia and 24 people with normal visual imaginations. Individuals were seated alone in a darkened room with electrodes attached to their skin to measure electrical conductivity. Conductivity increases when a person experiences strong emotions. Subjects were shown a succession of 3- to 7-word phrases immediately following one another, with each displayed for two seconds as they developed a frightening narrative.
The stories started innocently enough: "You are at the beach, in the water" or "You're on a plane, by the window." Little by little, unsettling elements were introduced — a mention of a dark flash among distant waves, or people standing on the beach pointing, or the plane shaking as the cabin lights dim.
Pearson reports, "Skin conductivity levels quickly started to grow for people who were able to visualize the stories. The more the stories went on, the more their skin reacted."
Not so for the aphantasic participants, of whom he says: "the skin conductivity levels pretty much flatlined."
Reacting to scary imagery
Credit: Mark Kostich/Adobe Stock
The researchers confirmed that it was the aphantasia which accounted for the different reactions between the two groups by running the experiment again, but this time with pictures instead of words. Visual imagination wasn't necessary — all the disturbing imagery, which included a dead human body and a snake bearing its fangs in threat, were supplied.
This time, both groups of people became similarly unnerved. "The emotional fear response was present when participants actually saw the scary material play out in front of them," says Pearson.
"The findings suggest," Pearson says, "that imagery is an emotional thought amplifier. We can think all kind of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren't going to have that emotional 'boom.'"
It also suggests a couple of things about telling scary stories. First, the importance of visual imagination suggests that providing lots of visual details will give a scary story more oomph. Second, people with aphantasia are probably lousy campfire audiences.
Next, the researchers plan to investigate the ways in which disorders such as PTSD might be different for people with aphantasia.
Words of wisdom from H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dr. Temple Grandin, Hannah Gadsby and more.
- Autism (commonly referred to as ASD, autism spectrum disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
- The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can be very different in each person. Additionally, these things can also change over time. This is why it's considered a spectrum.
- Many people with ASD gift the world with inventions or new ways of thinking. Judy Singer, for example, is the woman who coined the term "neurodiversity" in the 1990s.
What is autism?
Autism (commonly referred to as ASD, autism spectrum disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is the concept that there are many different variations of human functionality and that each and every variation needs to be better understood and respected.
Previously (and in some places, currently), neurological differences such as autism or ADHD were considered medical deficits. They were classified as things that need to be treated and cured.
Neurodiversity is an alternative approach to learning and disability that shifts the focus from treatment and cures to acceptance and accommodation. The neurodiversity movement began in the late 1990s, when sociologist Judy Singer (who is on the autism spectrum), came up with the word to describe conditions such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. This ideology recognizes that neurological differences are the result of natural variations to the human genome.
What does it mean to be on the autism spectrum?
The "official" term for the diagnosis is ASD (autism spectrum disorder). While the days where things were viewed as black and white aren't too far behind us, the world is slowly gravitating towards understanding that many things (from mental health conditions to gender) can land on a spectrum. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can be very different in each person. Additionally, these things can also change over time. This is why it's considered a spectrum.
There are several people throughout history who have been rumored to be on the autism spectrum, from infamous author Lewis Carroll, to iconic mathematician Isaac Newton. Many people with ASD gift the world with inventions or new ways of thinking. In fact, the first entry on the list is the woman who coined the term "neurodiversity" in the 1990s, Judy Singer.
"I think the concept of Neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity, but it needs to mature to the point where we see that human nature is complex, and nature is beautiful but not benign."
- Judy Singer to Autism Awareness
"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself."
- Hannah Gadsby, Marie Claire
Credit: World Travel & Tourism Council / Flickr
"And I know that the younger generation is doing things that are so ingenious. And for them it's not a matter of a political belief or an environmental stance. It's really just common sense."
- Daryl Hannah, NBC News
"There are enough people in the world who are going to write you off. You don't need to do that to yourself."
- Susan Boyle, "The Woman I Was Born to Be: My Story"
"We float around and we run across each other and we learn about ourselves, and we make mistakes and we do great things. We hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we make others happy and we please ourselves. We can and should forgive ourselves and each other for that."
- Dan Harmon
Dr. Temple Grandin
"When I was younger I was looking for this magic meaning of life. It's very simple now. Making the lives of others better, doing something of lasting value. That's the meaning of life, it's that simple."
- Dr. Temple Grandin, WECapable
"Recognizing and respecting differences in others, and treating everyone like you want them to treat you, will help make our world a better place for everyone."
- Kim Peek, All That's Interesting
"What a man does for pay is of little significance. What he is, as a sensitive instrument responsive to the world's beauty, is everything!"
- H.P. Lovecraft
"I would play with numbers in a way that other kids would play with their friends."
- Daniel Tammet
Sir Anthony Hopkins
Credit: gdcgraphics on Flickr
"My philosophy is: It's none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am, and I do what I do. I expect nothing and accept everything. And it makes life so much easier."
- Sir Anthony Hopkins
John Elder Robinson
"It does not matter what sixty-six percent of people do in any particular situation. All that matters is what you do."
- John Elder Robinson, "Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers"