Creating words from iterated imitation


We report the results of a large-scale (N=1571) experiment to investigate whether spoken words can emerge from the process of repeated imitation. Participants played a version of the children’s game “Telephone”. The first generation was asked to imitate recognizable environmental sounds (e.g., glass breaking, water splashing); subsequent generations imitated the imitators for a total of 8 generations. We then examined whether the vocal imitations became more stable and word-like, retained a resemblance to the original sound, and became more suitable as learned category labels. The results showed (1) the imitations became progressively more word-like, (2) even after 8 generations, they could be matched above chance to the environmental sound that motivated them, and (3) imitations from later generations were more effective as learned category labels. These results show how repeated imitation can create progressively more word-like forms while retaining a semblance of iconicity.

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