Speech could be older than we thought

Summary: Speech could have emerged earlier than the 200,000 years ago, long before current linguistic theory suggests.

Source: CNRS

For 50 years, the theory of the “descended larynx” has stated that before speech can emerge, the larynx must be in a low position to produce differentiated vowels. Monkeys, which have a vocal tract anatomy that resembles that of humans in the essential articulators (tongue, jaw, lips) but with a higher larynx, could not produce differentiated vocalizations. Researchers at the CNRS and the Université Grenoble Alpes, in collaboration with French, Canadian and US teams, show in a 11 December 2019 review article in Science Advances that monkeys produce well differentiated proto-vowels. The production of differentiated vocalizations is not therefore a question of anatomical variants but of control of articulators. This work leads us to think that speech could have emerged before the 200,000 years ago that linguists currently assert.

Since speech can be considered as being the cornerstone of the human species, it is not surprising that two pairs of researchers, in the 1930s-1950s, had tested the possibility of teaching a home-raised chimpanzee to speak, at the same time and under the same conditions as their baby. All their experiments ended in failure. To explain this result, in 1969 in a long series of articles a US researcher, Philip Lieberman, proposed the theory of the descended larynx (TDL). By comparing the human vocal tract to monkeys, this researcher has shown that these have a small pharynx, related to the high position of their larynx, whereas in humans, the larynx is lower. This anatomic block reportedly prevents differentiated vowel production, which is present in all the world’s languages and necessary for spoken language. Despite some criticisms and many acoustic observations that contradict the TDL, it would come to be accepted by most primatologists.

More recently, articles on monkeys’ articulatory capacities have shown that they may have used a system of proto-vowels. Considering the acoustic cavities formed by the tongue, jaw and lips (identical in primates and humans), they showed that production of differentiated vocalizations is not a question of anatomy but relates to control of articulators. The data used to establish the TDL came in fact from cadavers, so they could not reveal control of this nature.

This shows people talking
This work leads us to think that speech could have emerged before the 200,000 years ago that linguists currently assert. The image is in the public domain.

This analysis, conducted by pluridisciplinary specialists in the GIPSA-Lab (CNRS/Université Grenoble Alpes/Grenoble INP), in collaboration with the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université), the University of Alabama (USA), the Laboratoire d’Anatomie de l’Université de Montpellier, the Laboratoire de Phonétique de l’Université du Québec (Canada), CRBLM in Montréal (Canada) and the Laboratoire Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme Préhistorique (CNRS/Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle /UPVD), opens new perspectives: if the emergence of articulated speech is no longer dependent on the descent of the larynx, which took place about 200,000 years ago, scientists can now envisage much earlier speech emergence, as far back as at least 20 million years, a time when our common ancestor with monkeys lived, who already presumably had the capacity to produce contrasted vocalizations.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Alexiane Agullo – CNRS
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Which way to the dawn of speech?: Reanalyzing half a century of debates and data in light of speech science”. Louis-Jean Boë et al.
Science Advances doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaw3916.


Which way to the dawn of speech?: Reanalyzing half a century of debates and data in light of speech science

Recent articles on primate articulatory abilities are revolutionary regarding speech emergence, a crucial aspect of language evolution, by revealing a human-like system of proto-vowels in nonhuman primates and implicitly throughout our hominid ancestry. This article presents both a schematic history and the state of the art in primate vocalization research and its importance for speech emergence. Recent speech research advances allow more incisive comparison of phylogeny and ontogeny and also an illuminating reinterpretation of vintage primate vocalization data. This review produces three major findings. First, even among primates, laryngeal descent is not uniquely human. Second, laryngeal descent is not required to produce contrasting formant patterns in vocalizations. Third, living nonhuman primates produce vocalizations with contrasting formant patterns. Thus, evidence now overwhelmingly refutes the long-standing laryngeal descent theory, which pushes back “the dawn of speech” beyond ~200 ka ago to over ~20 Ma ago, a difference of two orders of magnitude.

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  1. Speech older than thought? Thanks a lot for this article. Yes, biological preadaptations to human speech are probably at least 20 Ma (Miocene hominoids = apes + humans).
    Professor Nishimura & team described 2 possible preadaptations to human speech:
    (1) laryngeal descent (LD) versus the hyoid or tongue bone, seen in all hominoids,
    (2) hyoidal descent versus the palate (this lowers the larynx still farther), probably uniquely human among primates.
    (1) The LD versus the hyoid is probably an adaption for loud & varied territorial calls (Darwin already mentioned gibbon song as a preadaptation to human speech).
    (2) The hyoidal descent versus the palate is probably an adaptation for deglutition & suction of soft & slippery foods.
    Vaneechoutte et al. (2011) described other biological preadaptations to human speech, which seem to have evolved when Pleistocene archaic Homo dispersed intercontinentally, initially along African & S-Eurasian coasts & even islands (Flores, Luzon, Sulawesi, Crete, Cyprus, Dodekanesos…) where their diet included a lot of littoral foods, which are extremely rich in brain-specific nutrients (esp. docosahexaenoic acid DHA).
    Seafood not only helps explain the dramatic brain expansion seen in archaic Homo (e.g. erectus & neanderthalensis), but also our hyoidal descent, which facilitated the suction & deglutition of shell- & crayfish: slippery foods that had to be sucked rather than chewed (this probably also explains why Homo begin-Pleistocene lost the masticatory protein MYH16).
    Shallow-diving for littoral foods helps understand why only humans among primates have evolved voluntary breath-hold diving, and probably even why humans are capable of closing the oral cavity at different places, which allows the production of labial, dental, palatal etc. consonants. Both voluntary breathing & the capacity to produce consonants are necessary elements of human speech, see our 2011 paper Vaneechoutte cs “Seafood, diving, song and speech” (for refs, google e.g. “Speech originS 2017 Verhaegen”).
    In combination with Vocal Learning (sound imitation, which is also seen in diverse (semi)aquatic mammals), all these preadaptations (LD already Miocene, others probably Pleistocene) might have allowed the evolution of humanlike speech.

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