Human Non-linguistic Vocal Repertoire: Call Types and Their Meaning

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Recent research on human nonverbal vocalizations has led to considerable progress in our understanding of vocal communication of emotion. However, in contrast to studies of animal vocalizations, this research has focused mainly on the emotional interpretation of such signals. The repertoire of human nonverbal vocalizations as acoustic types, and the mapping between acoustic and emotional categories, thus remain underexplored. In a cross-linguistic naming task (Experiment 1), verbal categorization of 132 authentic (non-acted) human vocalizations by English-, Swedish- and Russian-speaking participants revealed the same major acoustic types: laugh, cry, scream, moan, and possibly roar and sigh. The association between call type and perceived emotion was systematic but non-redundant: listeners associated every call type with a limited, but in some cases relatively wide, range of emotions. The speed and consistency of naming the call type predicted the speed and consistency of inferring the caller's emotion, suggesting that acoustic and emotional categorizations are closely related. However, participants preferred to name the call type before naming the emotion. Furthermore, nonverbal categorization of the same stimuli in a triad classification task (Experiment 2) was more compatible with classification by call type than by emotion, indicating the former's greater perceptual salience. These results suggest that acoustic categorization may precede attribution of emotion, highlighting the need to distinguish between the overt form of nonverbal signals and their interpretation by the perceiver. Both within- and between-call acoustic variation can then be modeled explicitly, bringing research on human nonverbal vocalizations more in line with the work on animal communication.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-80
JournalJournal of Nonverbal Behavior
Issue number1
Early online date2017 Sep 30
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Mar

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Other Natural Sciences not elsewhere specified


  • emotion
  • non-linguistic vocalizations
  • semantic spaces
  • cross-linguistic naming study
  • triad classification task


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