The Evolution of Human Speech

Human speech

Saturday 03 December 2016

Dr Adriano Lameira will take us how Human Speech evolved, come along to learn more at 3:45 PM in Empty Shop.

Science has a very pale idea of how the most advanced communication system in nature – human spoken language – emerged from a great ape ancestor and how such proto-speech might have sounded like. The capacity to accurately reconstruct the evolution of spoken language is, however, vanishingly small without such information. This is because the form and function of the original building blocks of speech directly determined its evolution trajectory. New knowledge about these elements can offer, thus, insight into language evolution timeline. Primate bioacoustics, namely in our closest relatives – nonhuman great apes – represents a rich source of information on the probable composition of the ancestral great ape call repertoire that predated human speech within our lineage. In this Café Sci Durham City talk, I will illustrate how the long-term inventory of the call repertoire of nonhuman great apes in the wild and captivity has recently unveiled a deep articulatory homology between great ape voiced and voiceless calls on the one hand (i.e. with and without vocal fold action as sound source, respectively) and human vowel and consonants on the other. This articulatory parallel offers a clearer view over the basic sounds that probably composed the “mother tongue” of all the world’s spoken languages. The presence of proto-vowels and proto-consonants in a hominid ancestor provides a starting point for new questions regarding the order, structure and timing of the several steps that made up the process of speech and language evolution.