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Debunking two myths against vocal origins of language: Language is iconic and multimodal to the core

Perlman, M. (2017). Debunking two myths against vocal origins of language: Language is iconic and multimodal to the core. Interaction studies, 18(3), 376-401. doi:10.1075/is.18.3.05per.
Gesture-first theories of language origins often raise two unsubstantiated arguments against vocal origins. First, they argue that great ape vocal behavior is highly constrained, limited to a fixed, species-typical repertoire of reflexive calls. Second, they argue that vocalizations lack any significant potential to ground meaning through iconicity, or resemblance between form and meaning. This paper reviews the considerable evidence that debunks these two “myths”. Accumulating evidence shows that the great apes exercise voluntary control over their vocal behavior, including their breathing, larynx, and supralaryngeal articulators. They are also able to learn new vocal behaviors, and even show some rudimentary ability for vocal imitation. In addition, an abundance of research demonstrates that the vocal modality affords rich potential for iconicity. People can understand iconicity in sound symbolism, and they can produce iconic vocalizations to communicate a diverse range of meanings. Thus, two of the primary arguments against vocal origins theories are not tenable. As an alternative, the paper concludes that the origins of language – going as far back as our last common ancestor with great apes – are rooted in iconicity in both gesture and vocalization.
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