Baboon vocalizations contain five vowel-like sounds comparable to those of human speech

January 11, 2017, Public Library of Science
Baboon vocalizing. Credit: Joel Fagot

An acoustical analysis of the grunts, barks, wahoos, copulation calls, and yaks from baboons shows that, like people who use several vowels during speech, these nonhuman primates make five distinct vowel-like sounds, according to a study published January 11, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Louis-Jean Boë, Grenoble Alpes University, France, and colleagues.

A prevalent idea on the origin of speech is that the low human larynx is required to be able to produce sets of distinct vowels, and that the high larynx of prevents them from producing the vowels found across human languages. Thus, scientists believe that language originated relatively recently, within the last 70,000 -100,000 years, and little research on links between the vocalization of nonhuman primates and has been undertaken.

To investigate any such parallels, Boë and colleagues analyzed 1335 spontaneous vocalizations produced by 15 male and female Guinea in different social contexts, and studied the anatomy of vocal tracts from two baboons that died of natural causes.

The researchers found that baboons produce five sounds that have important similarities with the of human . People form each vowel sound with a precise control of tongue position in the vocal tract, and the anatomical analysis revealed that baboon tongues have the same muscles as human tongues. This suggests that these monkeys likewise use tongue movements to form each of the vowel-like sounds. Taken together, these findings suggest that spoken language in people may have evolved from articulatory capacities that were already possessed by our last common ancestor with baboons, or about 25 million years ago.

Explore further: Monkey speak: Macaques have the anatomy, not the brain, for human speech

More information: Boë L-J, Berthommier F, Legou T, Captier G, Kemp C, Sawallis TR, et al. (2017) Evidence of a Vocalic Proto-System in the Baboon (Papio papio) Suggests Pre-Hominin Speech Precursors. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169321. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169321

Related Stories

Why 'baby talk' is good for your baby

October 10, 2016

People often tell new parents to avoid sing-song "baby talk" with their new addition to the family because it will slow the child's language development.

Recommended for you

Chimpanzees sniff out strangers and family members

October 23, 2018

Chemical communication is widely used in the animal kingdom to convey social information. For example, animals use olfactory cues to recognize group or family members, or to choose genetically suitable mates. In contrast ...

Birds startled by moving sticks

October 23, 2018

Do animals—like humans—divide the world into things that move and things that don't? Are they surprised if an apparently inanimate object jumps to life?

Breakthrough test screens for all known bacterial infections

October 23, 2018

Scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health have developed the first diagnostic platform that can simultaneously screen for all known human pathogenic ...

Researchers have discovered a new cell structure

October 23, 2018

A new structure in human cells has been discovered by researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden in collaboration with colleagues in the U.K. The structure is a new type of protein complex that the cell uses to attach ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

NoStrings
not rated yet Jan 11, 2017
I wonder what baboons think about human vocalizations. Wish they could write, they likely would write something very much like the article above about our vocalizations.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.