Very little is known about the origin of language. Whether it evolved suddenly or gradually during the evolution of our species is hotly debated. Therefore any insights from studying the evolution of speech will be of strong interest to not only linguists, but also biologists, geneticists, anthropologists and archaeologists.

Lay summary

Although speech is the default mode of communication across all cultures, language itself can be either gestural (sign language) or spoken (speech). The goal of this project is to study the evolution of speech in its own right and also as a proxy for investigating the origin of language. The advantage of this approach is that many aspects of speech, including its acoustics, articulation, and neural control, are shared with other animals. For example, monkeys, apes, and humans have evolved specialized anatomy for producing and perceiving sounds for communicative purposes. And although there is no consensus on the precise dating of when language emerged, most researchers agree that the speech faculty’s essential components have been in place for at least half a million years.

This project will investigate the evolution of speech through the lens of three big questions. First, what parallels exist between human and nonhuman vocalizations? Second, what speech sounds could extinct hominins, such as Neanderthal, make? Third, which speech sounds today are determined by our biology and which are due to cultural pressures? The answers to these questions will create a natural history of the use of speech sounds as building blocks in the complex communication system known as human language.