An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

When did lan­guage begin? The ques­tion is not an easy one to answer. There are no records of the event. “Lan­guages don’t leave fos­sils,” notes the Lin­guis­tic Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, “and fos­sil skulls only tell us the over­all shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.” The scant evi­dence from evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy does not tell us when ear­ly humans first began to use lan­guage, only that they could 100,000 years or so ago.

How­ev­er, the ques­tion also depends on what we mean by lan­guage. Before the lin­guis­tic tech­nolo­gies of gram­mar and syn­tax, hominids, like oth­er mam­mals today and a good num­ber of non-mam­mals too, had a word­less lan­guage that com­mu­ni­cat­ed more direct­ly, and more hon­est­ly, than any of the thou­sands of ways to string syl­la­bles into sen­tences.

That lan­guage still exists, of course, and those who under­stand it know when some­one is afraid, relieved, frus­trat­ed, angry, con­fused, sur­prised, embar­rassed, or awed, no mat­ter what that some­one says. It is a lan­guage of feeling—of sighs, grunts, rum­bles, moans, whis­tles, sniffs, laughs, sobs, and so forth. Researchers call them “vocal bursts” and as any long-suf­fer­ing mar­ried cou­ple can tell you, they com­mu­ni­cate a whole range of spe­cif­ic feel­ings.

“Emo­tion­al expres­sions,” says UC Berke­ley psy­chol­o­gy grad­u­ate stu­dent Alan Cowen, “col­or our social inter­ac­tions with spir­it­ed dec­la­ra­tions of our inner feel­ing that are dif­fi­cult to fake, and that our friends, co-work­ers and loved ones rely on to deci­pher our true com­mit­ments.“ Cowen and his col­leagues devised a study to test the range of emo­tion vocal bursts can car­ry.

The researchers asked 56 peo­ple, reports Dis­cov­er mag­a­zine, “some pro­fes­sion­al actors and some not, to react to dif­fer­ent emo­tion­al sce­nar­ios” in record­ings. Next, they played the record­ings for over a 1,000 peo­ple, who rat­ed “the vocal­iza­tions based on the emo­tions and tone (pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive) they thought the clips con­veyed.”

The researchers found that “vocal bursts con­vey at least 24 dis­tinct kinds of emo­tions.” They plot­ted those feel­ings on a col­or­ful inter­ac­tive map, pub­licly avail­able online. “The team says it could be use­ful in help­ing robot­ic devices bet­ter pin down human emo­tions,” Dis­cov­er writes. “It could also be handy in clin­i­cal set­tings, help­ing patients who strug­gle with emo­tion­al pro­cess­ing.” The study only record­ed vocal­iza­tions from Eng­lish speak­ers, and “the results would undoubt­ed­ly vary if peo­ple from oth­er coun­tries or who spoke oth­er lan­guages were sur­veyed.”

But this lim­i­ta­tion does not under­mine anoth­er impli­ca­tion of the study: that human lan­guage con­sists of far more than just words, and that vocal bursts, which we like­ly share with a wide swath of the ani­mal king­dom, are not only, per­haps, an orig­i­nal lan­guage but also one that con­tin­ues to com­mu­ni­cate the things we can’t or won’t say to each oth­er. Read the study here and see the inter­ac­tive vocal burst map here.

via MetaFil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Where Did the Eng­lish Lan­guage Come From?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Why We Say “OK”: The His­to­ry of the Most Wide­ly Spo­ken Word in the World

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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