You might not be an expert when it comes to language, but you probably know what onomatopoeia is—a word that imitates the sound it describes, like buzz or tick-tock. Linguists think that just a small proportion of words are made this way in every language. But scientists don’t actually know how that process happens. In the first study to explore how sounds become words in real time, researchers used a “telephone” style game, asking 16 volunteers to imitate sounds like sloshing water and ripping paper. They then played those imitations for a new group of volunteers, who replicated them for new volunteers, and so on. Over time, something strange happened: the imitations started to sound like words. They developed stable initial sounds and vowels, becoming so regular that new volunteers were able to repeat them without any problems. So an imitation of ripping paper morphed from a drawn-out, friction-full noise into the two-syllable “chee-ah,” and an imitation of sloshing water transformed itself into the guttural utterance “glong-glong” (see video). What’s more, when a separate group was asked to trace the new “words” back to their original sounds, they were able to guess the correct answers well above chance. The study, researchers say, suggests two things: that people can turn meaningful sounds into meaningful words, and that these kinds of sound-derived words may be much more widespread in human language than previously thought.
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