Study discovers dawn of language evolution

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Sumatran Orangutan. Pic © Creative Commons

A group of scientists has made a discovery on the origin of the human language, after spending years listening to the communication calls of orangutans.

Researchers from several institutes, including Liverpool John Moores University, Durham University, and the University of Amsterdam have recorded and analysed almost 5,000 orangutan “kiss squeaks” in their new study, ‘Nature Human Behaviour’.

The academic investigation found that the animals, which are the closest relatives to humans, combined these purse-lipped calls to convey different messages. The evidence provides a glimpse of how the earliest words were formed.

Previously, theories on speech evolution have focused on vowels, but the researchers found that the noise is a consonant-like sound, suggesting that human ancestors may have combined similar noises to make early syllables and words.

Professor Serge Wich, of LJMU’s School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, told JMU Journalism: “The noises that the orangutans make contain similar information to the sounds that are normally voiced. Human spoken language is made up of continents and vowels. Vowels are voiced and continents generally are not.

“We always thought that a lot of the information was related to calls that involved vowels but this research shows that it is likely that orangutans started to combine continents and vowels, and maybe human ancestors combined those to repeat the same information, which may be the start of early syllables and words.

YouTube: Wendy Erb

The “kiss squeaks” analysed were collected from 48 animals in four wild populations and researchers found that they embedded several different bits of information in their squeaks.

Dr. Adriano Lameira, the lead author of the study and based at Durham University’s Department of Anthropology, added: “The recent discovery that great apes produce two major call categories – voiced and unvoiced – that show close affinities with human vowels and consonants, respectively, is allowing great ape researchers and scientists interested in spoken language evolution to advance new types of questions on this long-standing puzzle.”