February 1, 2023

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Orangutans make persistent, repetitive sounds (thus shedding new light on the origins of human speech)

The study shows where all these consonants come from in many spoken languages. Moreover, it indicates that our distant ancestors did not live on earth, but in trees.

Spoken human language consists of vowels and consonants. However, there are more consonants than vowels. If we look at the communication repertoire of our close relatives (such as gorillas and chimpanzees), we will find something remarkable: they emit far more vowels than consonants. “This raises questions about the source of the abundant diversity of consonants that make up all the world’s languages,” said researcher Adriano Lamira. Saintias. He and his colleagues claim that they have now unraveled this mystery, with major implications for our understanding of the origins of human speech.

African great apes
African great apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, are closely related to us. So it was expected that their repertoire would be very similar to human speech. So African great apes have been studied for decades, looking for clues about how our speech and language evolved. But we may be looking in the wrong place. “Current theories of speech evolution have so far focused only on the relationship between primate laryngeal anatomy and human use of vowels,” says Lamira. However, this does not explain how consonant sounds have become an essential part of every language spoken around the world.

Native language
It proves once again how difficult it is to uncover the origins of spoken human language. In fact, the evolution of speech is one of the oldest mysteries in science. “Unfortunately, sounds don’t turn into fossils, so we’ll never be able to extract the first spoken languages ​​from archaeological excavation,” says Lamira. “Our understanding of the origins of language is falling further and further behind our ever-evolving knowledge of ancient human species and their recovered material cultures.” However, according to the researcher, it is important that we continue our research. “The languages ​​we speak are one of the strongest aspects of our personal and social identity,” continues Lamira. “The dissolution of the first ‘mother tongue’ can bind all societies and restore our connection to nature. We may see ourselves again as part of (rather than separate from) the natural world, because our capacity for language is part of our main heritage.”

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Consonants
To understand the origins of human speech and the origin of consonants in the human lineage, the researcher compared the sounds of orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. This leads to an amazing discovery. “Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos use few consonants, but orangutans use many,” concludes Lamira. “Many different groups of orangutans continually make consonant sounds, just like humans. They have the most diverse consonant repertoire of any great ape. Their vocal repertoire is rich in slappings, clicks, smacks, and kisses. This may explain where all the human consonants come from.”

Tree dwellers
In short, the research shows that orangutans communicate through a complex repertoire of consonant-like sounds. This may also explain how consonants became a part of human language. But what is surprising is that orangutans, unlike humans and many African great apes, prefer trees high above the ground. It is likely that our evolutionary ancestors were also more tree-dwellers than previously thought. “We see that a rich, consistent repertoire has evolved among the arboreal monkeys,” Lamira explains. “Since all human languages ​​are also rich in consonants, this indicates that our ancestors did not live on the ground, but may have lived in trees.” This is a somewhat surprising line of thought. It contrasts starkly with the classic idea of ​​our ancestors roaming the African savannah. But according to Myra, this is certainly not impossible. “Evidence that some of the most representative human characteristics stem from arboreal lifestyles is accumulating,” the researcher said.

Orangutans
Why arboreal monkeys, like orangutans, emit consonants more often, Mira can also explain. “All monkeys are birds of prey,” he explains. They have devised clever tricks to get to hidden nuts or plant seeds, often requiring ingenuity or the use of tools. Since gorillas and chimpanzees live on land, they often have both hands. Orangutans, on the other hand, constantly need a limb to cling to branches. Because of this limitation, orangutans have more control over their lips, tongue, and jaws.” So, orangutans use their mouth as a fifth hand. In fact, they are so adept with their lips that they can peel an orange with just their mouth! The ability to produce consonants has also evolved.

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to respect
Overall, the study sheds a whole new light on the origins of human speech. In addition, the results suggest that in our further search for its origins, we must not forget about the arboreal monkeys. Because we may have more in common with them than we think. Lemira muses: “It is our hope that this connection with tree dwellers will lead us to respect the last remaining great forests and their inhabitants.” “Not only because it sustains life on the planet and is part of our natural heritage, but also because it holds clues to who we really are.”

By the way, there is still a lot to discover about it. “In fact, we still know very little about our past and why we act, act, and think the way we do,” says Lamira. “What we do know is that spoken language evolved from ape-like repertoire, simply because that is how evolution works. New features can only arise from modifications of existing features. The puzzle now is understanding what was already present in our ape-like ancestors. What are the sounds? What they did, how they did it and why? The clearer this picture is, the better we will know what ultimately led to the emergence of the first mother tongue.