When Did Humans Develop Ability to Speak?


Human Ancestors May Have Evolved the Physical Ability to Speak More Than 25 Million Years Ago

by Brian Handwerk/Smithsonian.com

Speech is part of what makes us uniquely human, but what if our ancestors had the ability to speak millions of years before Homo sapiens even existed?

Some scientists have theorized that it only became physically possible to speak a wide range of essential vowel sounds when our vocal anatomy changed with the rise of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago. This theoretical timeline means that language, where the brain associates words with objects or concepts and arranges them in complex sentences, would have been a relatively recent phenomenon, developing with or after our ability to speak a diverse array of sounds.

But a comprehensive study analyzing several decades of research, from primate vocalization to vocal tract acoustic modeling, suggests the idea that only Homo sapiens could physically talk may miss the mark when it comes to our ancestors’ first speech—by a staggering 27 million years or more.

Linguist Thomas Sawallis of the University of Alabama and colleagues stress that functional human speech is rooted in the ability to form contrasting vowel sounds. These critical sounds are all that differentiates entirely unrelated words like “bat,” “bought,” “but” and “bet.”

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  1. I heard of a survey they did, back in the 70s, they asked men and women what was the main complaint about women by men, and the main complaint about men by women.
    Think about this!!!
    Women said they were unappreciated; men said they were nagged…!!!
    25 million years of this???
    Actually, this question is a safe place for so-called scientists to wiseacre in safety. Not long ago, the consensus of so-called scientists was that Neanderthal people did not have the equipment for speech, 40,000 years ago. My dog speaks to me with his eyes. The real question is not when did we start speaking. The real question is, when will we start listening? It is easier to natter on like a babbling brook, than it is to listen.

  2. When language began must surely also depend on what is an acceptable definition of language.
    It is quite likely that mimicry first formed the basis of language, as in onomatopoeia – words that sound like their meaning.
    Some birds are good mimics, so it poses the question whether complicated bird calls or songs are a kind of language birds can understand. I have spotted many an eagle or hawk circling high in the sky simply by looking up when I have heard the familiar “threat” call from smaller birds and seen them retreat into the trees.
    It has been demonstrated that some birds and animals can share a recognition for the same alarm calls. In particular, it has been noted in certain populations of African monkeys that the alarm call for “threat from above”, when a large bird of prey has been spotted, is quite different from the “threat from below” that might apply to a large snake. If that kind of audible alarm with a specific meaning can constitute language it would push the threshold for the origins of language back millions of years, even to a time prior to man’s earliest ancestors. In other words language may pre-date modern humans by quite a significant margin.

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