The referential value of prosody: A comparative approach to the study of animal vocal communication by Piera Filippi (blri)
Recent studies addressing animal vocal communication have challenged the traditional view of meaning in animal communication as the context-specific denotation of a call. These studies have identified a central aspect of animal vocal communication in the ability to recognize the emotional state of signalers, or to trigger appropriate behaviors in response to vocalizations. This theoretical perspective is conceptually sound from an evolutionary point of view, as it assumes that, rather than merely referring to an object or an event, animals’ vocalizations are designed to trigger (intentionally, or not) reactions that may be adaptive for both listeners and signalers. Crucially, changes in emotional states may be reflected in prosodic modulation of the voice. Research focusing on the expression of emotional states through vocal signals suggests that prosodic correlates of emotional vocalizations are shared across mammalian vocal communication systems. In a recent empirical study, we showed that human participants use specific acoustic correlates (differences in fundamental frequency and spectral center of gravity) to judge the emotional content of vocalizations across amphibia, reptilia, and mammalia. These results suggest that fundamental mechanisms of vocal emotional expression are widely shared among vocalizing vertebrates and could represent an ancient signaling system. But what’s the evolutionary link between the ability to interpret emotional information in animal vocalizations and the ability for human linguistic communication? I suggest to identify this link in the ability to modulate emotional sounds to the aim to trigger behaviors within social interactions. Hence, I will emphasize the key role of the interactional value of prosody in relation to the evolution and ontogenetic development of language. Within this framework, I will report on recent empirical data on humans, showing that the prosodic modulation of the voice is dominant over verbal content and faces in emotion communication. This finding aligns with the hypothesis that prosody is evolutionarily older than the emergence of segmental articulation, and might have paved the way to its origins. Finally, implications for the study of the cognitive relationship between linguistic prosody and the ability for music, which has often been identified as the evolutionary precursor of language, will be discussed.