Inherent emotional quality of human speech sounds

Cognition and Emotion 27 (6):1105-1113 (2013)
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During much of the past century, it was widely believed that phonemes--the human speech sounds that constitute words--have no inherent semantic meaning, and that the relationship between a combination of phonemes (a word) and its referent is simply arbitrary. Although recent work has challenged this picture by revealing psychological associations between certain phonemes and particular semantic contents, the precise mechanisms underlying these associations have not been fully elucidated. Here we provide novel evidence that certain phonemes have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality. Moreover, we show that the perceived emotional valence of certain phoneme combinations depends on a specific acoustic feature--namely, the dynamic shift within the phonemes' first two frequency components. These data suggest a phoneme-relevant acoustic property influencing the communication of emotion in humans, and provide further evidence against previously held assumptions regarding the structure of human language. This finding has potential applications for a variety of social, educational, clinical, and marketing contexts.
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