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Why speech is a human innovation

Except for various cartoon characters, the Geico Gecko and Mr. Ed, animals can’t speak. Yet they have a lot to say to scientists trying to figure out the origins of human language.

Speaking isn’t the only avenue for language. After all, linguistic messaging can be transmitted by hand signals. Or handwriting. Or texting. But speech is the original and most basic mode of human communication. So understanding its origins ought to generate deeper comprehension of language more generally. And a first step toward that understanding, cognitive scientist W. Tecumseh Fitch believes, is realizing that key aspects of vocal language are not, as traditionally contended, limited to humans.

He’s not talking about a TV-show horse, of course, or animated narrators of insurance advertisements. Fitch’s point is that many creatures from the real-world animal kingdom offer clues about how the capacity for speech came to be.

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It’s true that humans, and humans alone, evolved the complex set of voice, hearing and brain-processing skills enabling full-scale sophisticated vocal communication. Yet animals can make complicated sounds; parrots can mimic human speech and cats can clearly convey that it’s time for a treat. Many animals possess an acute sense of hearing and are able to distinguish random noises from intentional communication. So even though only humans possess the complete linguistic package, the components of language ability “have very deep evolutionary roots,” says Fitch, of the University of Vienna. In fact, he suggests, just a handful of changes in the communication repertoire of humankind’s ancestors endowed people with the full faculty of language.

Knowable Magazine is an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews.

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