Preverbal infants produce more protophones with artificial objects compared to natural objects

Violet Gibson, Eszter Somogyi, Iris Nomikou, Derry Taylor, Beatriz Lopez, Innocent Chitalu Mulenga, Marina Davila Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Protophones are considered to be precursors of speech. These vocalizations have been notably discussed in relation to toys and their importance for developing language skills. However, little is known about how natural objects, compared to artificial objects, may affect protophone production, an approach that could additionally help reconstruct how language evolved. In the current study, we examined protophone production in 58 infants (4–18 months) while interacting with their caregivers when using natural objects, household items, and toys. The infants were recorded in their home environment, in a rural area in Zambia. The results showed that the infants produced significantly fewer protophones when using natural objects than when using household items or toys. Importantly, this pattern was found only for the younger preverbal infants, and there was no indication in the data that the level of caregiver responsiveness differed with regard to the object type. Furthermore, the infants of the present work selected primarily the household items when exposed to both natural objects and household items. These findings suggest that natural objects are less likely to promote protophone production and, consequently, language skill development than artificial objects in preverbal infants, who seem to favor the latter, perhaps due to their features designed for specific functional purposes. Furthermore, these findings provide empirical evidence that the use of complex tools in social interactions may have helped to promote the evolution of language among hominins.
Original languageEnglish
Article number9969
Number of pages10
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2023


  • UKRI
  • ESRC
  • ES/P000673/1

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