Scientists asked themselves how humans evolved from non-vocalized calls to smooth spoken language. In order to obtain some answers, they analyzed the language of primates and came up with some interesting results.
In previous studies, researchers compared the position of the human voice box to that of other primates. Humans have a low larynx, while other primates have a high larynx. This brought scientists to the conclusion that a low larynx is required in order to produce certain vowel sounds that are necessary for spoken language.
However, vowel sounds are not specific to humans. New studies found that baboons also produce five vowel sounds in their calls. Researchers recorded baboon calls for a year and then searched the recordings for formants – these are frequencies of sound that are characteristic to vowels.
After mapping the formants, they found out that baboons can produce five vowel-like sounds. This richness suggests that these sounds fall into a system of vocalization. However, Philip Lieberman, linguist and cognitive scientist, is skeptical. He is not sure that the vowel clusters the researchers have picked up are actual formants, but rather the pitch of a baboon’s voice. Other researchers agreed that the method used in the study might be “tricky”.
Even if baboons are able to produce formant frequencies after all, it does not mean they are capable of speech. They need the cognitive capacity necessary to split the calls into more definite sounds and eventually develop words.
Thore Jon Bergman, psychobiologist at the University of Michigan, supports the idea that the anatomy of a baboon does not allow it to speak. In order to obtain vowels, a certain manipulation of the vocal tract is needed, and that manipulation is difficult to perform for animals with different vocal tracts. However, certain manipulations have been performed, so Bergman’s claim is, if there were to somehow attach a human brain to a baboon vocal tract, it may be able to produce a few sounds and make himself understood.
This study followed a previous one about the macaque vocal tract that was also able to produce the same vowel-like sounds. It is meant to strengthen the previous discoveries and change the old perspective on the evolution of human language. The origins of human speech may date back to the common ancestor of humans and monkeys.
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