Our Basic Ability To Speak Older Than We Thought, Shared With Baboons

Baboons make vowel-like sounds, suggesting an ancient origin for building blocks of language

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Jan 11, 2017 at 2:44 PM ET

Any list of what makes humans unique is likely going to have spoken language right at the top. And while animals do have their own, often complex forms of communication, this is one area where scientists have generally agreed that spoken language is distinctly human, emerged likely in early humans about 100,000 years ago.

But new research with baboons suggests they possess the ability to make sounds similar to vowels, which are the essential building blocks of human language. If that’s true, then speech’s earliest origins date back at least to our species’ common ancestor with baboons, which lived 25 million years ago.

Vowels matter because they are the nucleus of pretty much every syllable in every human language, allowing for the huge variety of distinct syllables that language requires. Scientists have believed that vowels are a particular function of our human anatomy, with the relatively low position of the human larynx, compared to in other primates, as critical to forming these sounds.

More Monkeys May Have The Mouths To Talk, Just Not The Brains

But researchers at France’s National Center for Scientific Research may have just upended that longstanding belief.

They analyzed 1,335 sounds that 15 captive baboons made, and they found more than 1,400 instances where the monkeys used their equivalent of vowel. From all that, the researchers identified five distinct vowel-like sounds, each roughly corresponding to an identifiable human vowel. Crucially, the baboons showed at least a rudimentary ability to use the same vowel sound in different contexts, just as English speakers use about 15 to 20 vowel sounds (and all the rest of the alphabet) to form a total vocabulary of about 170,000 words. Baboons admittedly aren’t at that sort of level, but the researchers found, for instance, that the same vowel-like sound appeared both in a female mating call and a male “wahoo” noise.

All this suggests that the basic biological ability to speak — if not the cognitive ability to support languages as complex as Chinese or Arabic or English— relies not on the position of the larynx but rather the precise muscle control of the tongue necessary to create vowel sounds.

Humans have that control, it now appears baboons have it too, and that means it’s entirely possible our common evolutionary ancestor had it as well. Considering the ancestors of humans and baboons split into distinct species 25 million years ago, that could make speech, or at least the potential for speech, almost unfathomably ancient.