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No Shared Language? No Problem! People Across Cultures Understand Clues From ‘Vocal Charades’

“If gesture is good enough for language,” says Aleksandra Ćwiek, a linguistics Ph.D. student at the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics, “why the hell do we talk?” In a new study, Ćwiek and her colleagues help answer that question: People from very different cultures can understand nonlinguistic vocal clues better than expected by chance, they find. Speakers of 28 languages could all successfully guess meanings in a charadeslike game where other people expressed words like “water” using vocal sounds — but no language. The study bolsters a growing argument that vocal sounds, like gestures, can be “iconic” — mimicking some part of the idea they’re trying to convey — says Gareth Roberts, an evolutionary linguist at the University of Pennsylvania who wasn’t involved in the new work.

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