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Biophysics - Neuroscience - Physics

The Anatomy of Onomatopoeia
Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Author: María Florencia Assaneo et al.

by María Florencia Assaneo, Juan Ignacio Nichols, Marcos Alberto Trevisan

Virtually every human faculty engage with imitation. One of the most natural and unexplored objects for the study of the mimetic elements in language is the onomatopoeia, as it implies an imitative-driven transformation of a sound of nature into a word. Notably, simple sounds are transformed into complex strings of vowels and consonants, making difficult to identify what is acoustically preserved in this operation. In this work we propose a definition for vocal imitation by which sounds are transformed into the speech elements that minimize their spectral difference within the constraints of the vocal system. In order to test this definition, we use a computational model that allows recovering anatomical features of the vocal system from experimental sound data. We explore the vocal configurations that best reproduce non-speech sounds, like striking blows on a door or the sharp sounds generated by pressing on light switches or computer mouse buttons. From the anatomical point of view, the configurations obtained are readily associated with co-articulated consonants, and we show perceptual evidence that these consonants are positively associated with the original sounds. Moreover, the pairs vowel-consonant that compose these co-articulations correspond to the most stable syllables found in the knock and click onomatopoeias across languages, suggesting a mechanism by which vocal imitation naturally embeds single sounds into more complex speech structures. Other mimetic forces received extensive attention by the scientific community, such as cross-modal associations between speech and visual categories. The present approach helps building a global view of the mimetic forces acting on language and opens a new venue for a quantitative study of word formation in terms of vocal imitation.