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Origin of speech

Larynx external en.svg
Anatomy of the larynx, anterolateral view
Anatomical terminology
Hyoid bone
Hyoid bone — anterior surface, enlarged
Anterolateral view of head and neck
Precursor 2nd and 3rd branchial arch
Latin os hyoideum
MeSH A02.835.232.409
Code TA: A02.1.16.001
FMA 52749
Anatomical terms of bone
Hypoglossal nerve
Hypoglossal nerve, cervical plexus, and their branches
Latin nervus hypoglossus
Anatomical terms of neuroanatomy
IPA vowel chart
Front Near-​front Central Near-​back Back
Blank vowel trapezoid.svg
i • y
ɨ • ʉ
ɯ • u
ɪ • ʏ
ɪ̈ • ʊ̈
ɯ̽ • ʊ
e • ø
ɘ • ɵ
ɤ • o
 • ø̞
ə • ɵ̞
ɤ̞ • 
ɛ • œ
ɜ • ɞ
ʌ • ɔ
æ • 
ɐ • ɞ̞
a • ɶ
ä • ɒ̈
ɑ • ɒ
Paired vowels are: unrounded • rounded
This table contains phonetic symbols, which may not display correctly in some browsers. [Help]

IPA help • IPA key • chart • Loudspeaker.svg chart with audio •

The origin of speech in Homo sapiens is a widely debated and controversial topic. The problems relate to humans' unprecedented use of the tongue, lips and vocal organs as instruments of communication. Other animals vocalise, but do not use the tongue to modulate sounds.

Although related to the more general problem of the origin of language, the evolution of distinctively human speech capacities has become a distinct and in many ways separate area of scientific research. The topic is a separate one because language is not necessarily spoken: it can equally be written or signed. Speech is in this sense optional, although it is the default modality for language.

Uncontroversially, monkeys, apes and humans, like many other animals, have evolved specialised mechanisms for producing sound for purposes of social communication. On the other hand, no monkey or ape uses its tongue for such purposes. Our species' unprecedented use of the tongue, lips and other moveable parts seems to place speech in a quite separate category, making its evolutionary emergence an intriguing theoretical challenge in the eyes of many scholars.

The term modality means the chosen representational format for encoding and transmitting information. A striking feature of language is that it is modality-independent. Should an impaired child be prevented from hearing or producing sound, its innate capacity to master a language may equally find expression in signing. Sign languages of the deaf are independently invented and have all the major properties of spoken language except for the modality of transmission. From this it appears that the language centres of the human brain must have evolved to function optimally irrespective of the selected modality.

"The detachment from modality-specific inputs may represent a substantial change in neural organization, one that affects not only imitation but also communication; only humans can lose one modality (e.g. hearing) and make up for this deficit by communicating with complete competence in a different modality (i.e. signing)."

This feature is extraordinary. Animal communication systems routinely combine visible with audible properties and effects, but not one is modality-independent. No vocally impaired whale, dolphin or songbird, for example, could express its song repertoire equally in visual display. Indeed, in the case of animal communication, message and modality are not capable of being disentangled. Whatever message is being conveyed stems from intrinsic properties of the signal.

Voicing contrast in English fricatives
Articulation Voiceless Voiced
Pronounced with the lower lip against the teeth: [f] (fan) [v] (van)
Pronounced with the tongue against the teeth: [θ] (thin, thigh) [ð] (then, thy)
Pronounced with the tongue near the gums: [s] (sip) [z] (zip)
Pronounced with the tongue bunched up: [ʃ] (pressure) [ʒ] (pleasure)

  • Bow-wow. The bow-wow or cuckoo theory, which Müller attributed to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, saw early words as imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.
  • Pooh-pooh. The Pooh-Pooh theory saw the first words as emotional interjections and exclamations triggered by pain, pleasure, surprise and so on.
  • Ding-dong. Müller suggested what he called the Ding-Dong theory, which states that all things have a vibrating natural resonance, echoed somehow by man in his earliest words.
  • Yo-he-ho. The yo-he-ho theory saw language emerging out of collective rhythmic labour, the attempt to synchronise muscular effort resulting in sounds such as heave alternating with sounds such as ho.
  • Ta-ta. This did not feature in Max Müller's list, having been proposed in 1930 by Sir Richard Paget. According to the ta-ta theory, humans made the earliest words by tongue movements that mimicked manual gestures, rendering them audible.
  • Bickerton, D. 2009. Adam's Tongue. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) 2009. The Prehistory of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) 2009. The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Burling, R. 2005. The Talking Ape. How language evolved. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Christiansen, M. and S. Kirby (eds), 2003. Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Corballis, M. C., 2002. From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Deacon, T. W., 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • de Boer. 2001. "The Origins of Vowels Systems", Oxford University Press.
  • de Grolier, E. (ed.), 1983. The Origin and Evolution of Language. Paris: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  • Deutscher, G. 2005. The Unfolding of Language. The evolution of mankind's greatest invention. London: Random House.
  • Dor, D., C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds), 2014. The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dunbar, R. I. M. 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Dunbar, R. I. M.; Knight, Chris; Power, Camilla. (1999). The evolution of culture : an interdisciplinary view. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN . OCLC 807340111. 
  • Fitch, W. T. 2010. The Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harnad, S. R., H. D. Steklis and J. Lancaster (eds), 1976. Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech. New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Hrdy, S. B. 2009. Mothers and others. The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Hurford, J. R. 2007. The Origins of Meaning. Language in the light of evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hurford, James R.; Studdert-Kennedy, Michael.; Knight, Chris (1998). Approaches to the evolution of language : social and cognitive bases. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN . OCLC 37742390. 
  • Kenneally, C. 2007. The First Word. The search for the origins of language. New York: Viking.
  • Lenneberg, E. H. 1967. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley.
  • Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1993. Gesture and Speech. Trans. A. Bostock Berger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Lieberman, Philip. (1991). Uniquely human : the evolution of speech, thought, and selfless behavior. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN . OCLC 21764294. 
  • Lieberman, Philip. (2006). Toward an evolutionary biology of language. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN . OCLC 62766735. 
  • Logan, Robert K. 2007. "The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • MacNeilage, P. 2008. The Origin of Speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Maynard Smith, J. and D. Harper 2003. Animal Signals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Oudeyer, P-Y. (2006) "Self-Organization in the Evolution of Speech", Oxford University Press.
  • Tallerman, M. and K. Gibson (eds), 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomasello, M. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Zahavi, A. and A. Zahavi 1997. The Handicap Principle. A missing piece in Darwin's puzzle. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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