Made-up sounds convey meaning across cultures.

Scientific American looks at babble and finds it comprehensible, thanks to language researchers who have learned that nonsense sounds imply the same concepts to listeners with different native languages:

In 2015 language researchers challenged some English speakers to make up sounds representing various basic concepts (“sleep,” “child,” “meat,” “rock,” and more). When other English speakers listened to these sounds and tried matching them to concepts, they were largely successful. But “we wanted to be able to show that these vocalizations are understandable across cultures,” says study co-author and University of Birmingham cognitive scientist Marcus Perlman.

So Perlman and his colleagues conducted online and in-person experiments in seven countries, from Morocco to Brazil. They recruited more than 900 participants, who spoke a total of 28 languages, to listen to the best-understood vocalizations from the 2015 investigation and select matching concepts from a set of words or images. Vocalizations that evoked well-known sounds—for example, dripping water—performed best. But many others were also understood at rates significantly above chance across all languages tested, the team found. “There is a notable degree of success outside of just onomatopoeia,” Perlman says.

This is likely because certain acoustic patterns are universal, the team suggests. For example, short and basic sounds often convey the concept of “one,” and repeated sounds are typically associated with “many.”

You can read the researcher’s study here, in Scientific Reports.