Is the Consonant Bias Specifically Human? Long-Evans Rats Encode Vowels Better Than Consonants in Words

Anim Cogn. 2019 Sep;22(5):839-850. doi: 10.1007/s10071-019-01280-3. Epub 2019 Jun 19.

Abstract

In natural languages, vowels tend to convey structures (syntax, prosody) while consonants are more important lexically. The consonant bias, which is the tendency to rely more on consonants than on vowels to process words, is well attested in human adults and infants after the first year of life. Is the consonant bias based on evolutionarily ancient mechanisms, potentially present in other species? The current study investigated this issue in a species phylogenetically distant from humans: Long-Evans rats. During training, the animals were presented with four natural word-forms (e.g., mano, "hand"). We then compared their responses to novel words carrying either a consonant (pano) or a vowel change (meno). Results show that the animals were less disrupted by consonantal alterations than by vocalic alterations of words. That is, word recognition was more affected by the alteration of a vowel than a consonant. Together with previous findings in very young human infants, this reliance on vocalic information we observe in rats suggests that the emergence of the consonant bias may require a combination of vocal, cognitive and auditory skills that rodents do not seem to possess.

Keywords: Comparative cognition; Consonant bias; Lexical processing; Operant conditioning.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language*
  • Phonetics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Speech Perception*