A Moment of Science

The Origins Of Human Speech

Some researchers are now considering the hypothesis that human speech evolved not from primate sounds but more from monkey facial gestures.

woman with red lips making the fish face

Photo: Kenn Wilson (Flickr)

Check out that lip smack!

Scientists have searched for the origins of human speech in the hoots, grunts, and other vocalizations made by primates. It would seem to make sense, after all, that such sounds may be related to the more varied and articulated sounds we humans make. But there are significant differences.

For example, human speech is learned, made using controlled and rapid movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw. Primate vocalizations, on the other hand, are not learned but innate.

Evolution

So some researchers are now considering the hypothesis that human speech evolved not from primate sounds but more from monkey facial gestures.

Specifically, scientists are interested in how monkeys smack their lips to communicate. Using x ray movies, researchers at Princeton and the University of Vienna have found that primate lip smacking is much more complex than it appears. Like human speech, lip smacking requires quick, controlled movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, and hyoid bone, which supports the larynx and tongue.

Lip Smack

For example, if you’ve been to a zoo you’ve probably seen chimps making loud lip smacks and buzzing sounds, like blowing a raspberry. Scientists believe that these sounds are a controlled form of chimp communication.

This research doesn’t quite solve the puzzle of the evolution of human speech. But it is a fascinating clue that the way we speak may have developed from a combination of sounds produced by the vocal cords and by rapid, controlled movements of the vocal tract, including lips, tongue and jaw.

  • johnwerneken

    Yes, some research says speech came from song and dance, which are to speech as speech is to gesture.

  • Hominid

    Junk science, anyone?

  • squirefld

    If a mama monkey “lip smacks” to her child and uses lips, jaws, tougue and hyold bone, the baby monkey will only be able to learn how to “lip smack”,  those few specific sounds forever. Even if they live in different parts of the jungle, it’s the same sounds.

    The human baby all across the world,  can make cooing and raspberry sounds soon after birth. But the human, soon learns from it’s parents the meaning of sounds, communication and talking that is not “lip smacks”. Whats even more impressive and makes any comparison to a monkey, silly, is the baby born in Africa and the baby born in the United States, can learn sounds, communications and talking in different forms of learned speech. Think of the complex brain power needed to achieve that. To go back and try to find out how our intelligence works by doing an expensive study on a monkey, is nonsense.   

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