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Journal Articles PLoS ONE Year : 2016

Vocal Imitations of Non-Vocal Sounds


Imitative behaviors are widespread in humans, in particular whenever two persons communicate and interact. Several tokens of spoken languages (onomatopoeias, ideophones, and phonesthemes) also display different degrees of iconicity between the sound of a word and what it refers to. Thus, it probably comes at no surprise that human speakers use a lot of imi-tative vocalizations and gestures when they communicate about sounds, as sounds are notably difficult to describe. What is more surprising is that vocal imitations of non-vocal everyday sounds (e.g. the sound of a car passing by) are in practice very effective: listeners identify sounds better with vocal imitations than with verbal descriptions, despite the fact that vocal imitations are inaccurate reproductions of a sound created by a particular mechanical system (e.g. a car driving by) through a different system (the voice apparatus). The present study investigated the semantic representations evoked by vocal imitations of sounds by experimentally quantifying how well listeners could match sounds to category labels. The experiment used three different types of sounds: recordings of easily identifiable sounds (sounds of human actions and manufactured products), human vocal imitations, and computational " auditory sketches " (created by algorithmic computations). The results show that performance with the best vocal imitations was similar to the best auditory sketches for most categories of sounds, and even to the referent sounds themselves in some cases. More detailed analyses showed that the acoustic distance between a vocal imitation and a referent sound is not sufficient to account for such performance. Analyses suggested that instead of trying to reproduce the referent sound as accurately as vocally possible, vocal imitations focus on a few important features, which depend on each particular sound category. These results offer perspectives for understanding how human listeners store and access long-term sound representations, and sets the stage for the development of human-computer interfaces based on vocalizations.
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hal-01429918 , version 1 (09-01-2017)



Guillaume Lemaitre, Olivier Houix, Frédéric Voisin, Nicolas Misdariis, Patrick Susini. Vocal Imitations of Non-Vocal Sounds. PLoS ONE, 2016, 66, pp.128 - 128. ⟨10.1371/journal.pone.0168167.t004⟩. ⟨hal-01429918⟩
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