Listen closely to those baboon calls — they may tell you a thing or two about human speech. Scientists who studied baboons’ wahoos, yaks, barks and other vocalizations have found evidence of five vowel-like sounds – a sign that the physical capacity for speech may have evolved over much longer timescales than previously thought.
The findings, described in the journal PLOS One, could have significant implications for our understanding of human speech’s development and the emergence of language.
Scientists studying the evolution of speech are left in a tricky bind because, unlike bones or shells, spoken words leave no fossil imprints in the geological record. How do you study the development of something as insubstantial as a sound?
Luckily, there are physical structures we can study – the mouths that make those sounds. By comparing the mouths of humans and their close relatives, researchers get a sense of which particular traits were necessary for the emergence of speech in humans – or perhaps, which physical characteristics would have impeded it.
“While it shares neuro-cognitive mechanisms with language, speech also engages anatomical traits that might leave fossil clues, as well as overt anatomical, physiological, and behavioral aspects for which parallels can be sought in living primates,” the study authors wrote.
Human speech is, in large part, based on using vowels as the kernel of a sound and placing consonants around those vowels. So the number of different vowels you can make is important, because it means you can make more potentially meaningful chunks of sound.
Think about “cat,” “kit,” “cut,” “coat,” “coot,” “keet,” and “caught” – seven words with different meanings. Each has a “k” sound at the beginning and a “t” at the end, and are essentially differentiated in sound only by their vowels. Without each of those subtly distinguishable vowels, we wouldn’t be able to tell those words apart.Read More...
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