Aesthetic perception of prosodic patterns as a potential factor in the cultural evolution of language

Theresa Matzinger, Eva Specker, Nikolaus Ritt and W Tecumseh Fitch

All human cultures appreciate art and can perceive visual, verbal, or musical stimuli in terms of their
aesthetic appeal. For example, aesthetic preferences regarding prosodic patterns play a prominent role
for the appeal of poetry (Nadal & Vartanian, 2019; Rastall, 2008). If such preferences also apply in
the perception of spontaneous everyday speech, they may pose a constraint on language change
(Rastall, 2008): we hypothesize that aesthetically appealing linguistic features are learned easily and
used frequently, and will thus be culturally transmitted to future generations of speakers more
successfully than less appealing features (cf. Smith & Kirby, 2008).
In our exploratory study, we investigated a crucial baseline for this hypothesis, namely if there were
indeed differences in listener’s aesthetic judgements of linguistic features. Specifically, we focused
on the aesthetic perception of temporal rhythmic patterns in polysyllabic words. On the one hand,
words might be regarded as most aesthetic if their syllables are isochronous because isochrony has a
facilitatory effect on auditory processing, and people have a general propensity for regular patterns
(Ravignani & Madison, 2017). On the other hand, listeners may also perceive irregular patterns as
aesthetically appealing (Westphal-Fitch & Fitch, 2013). In that case, words with deviations from
isochrony might be judged as more pleasing than isochronous stimuli.
To explore the potential link between words’ rhythmic patterns and aesthetic perception, we tested
180 native-German-speaking participants on their aesthetic evaluation of artificially generated
trisyllabic pseudo-words. Each participant made valence ratings of 20 words that were each presented
in 3 different conditions in a random order: a) with isochronous syllables, b) with the initial, medial
or final syllable lengthened and c) with the initial, medial or final syllable shortened by 50% of its
original duration (400 ms). Each participant ranked each word three times, namely on its ‘likability’,
on its ‘beauty’ and on its ‘naturalness’, which together served as indicators of ‘aesthetic appeal’.
Cumulative Link Mixed Models revealed that, overall, isochronous syllables were preferred over
deviations of isochrony. Especially, shortened syllables had a prominent negative effect on aesthetic
appeal. The only modification that participants judged as more aesthetically appealing than isochrony
was word-final lengthening. These results were similar for ‘likability’, ‘beauty’ and ‘naturalness’.
The positive ratings of rhythmic patterns are unlikely to have been influenced by their occurrence
frequencies in the participants’ native language (Bybee, 2007) because word-medial syllables, which
are typically stressed and thus lengthened in German (Domahs, Plag, & Carroll, 2014) have not been
evaluated as aesthetically appealing when lengthened in our experiment.
Interestingly, the aesthetic appeal of prosodic patterns in our study corresponded to their effectiveness
for speech segmentation in other experiments, where words with finally lengthened syllables could
be extracted from continuous speech more successfully than words with finally shortened syllables
(Matzinger, Ritt, & Fitch, 2021). Together, these findings indicate a potential connection between
aesthetics and language learning. Thus, overall, this study serves as an important starting point for
testing the role of aesthetic perception of linguistic input for the cultural evolution of linguistic

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