Why can't monkeys speak?

Vocal anatomy is not the problem

Monkeys and apes are unable to learn new vocalizations, and for decades it has been widely believed that this inability results from limitations of their vocal anatomy: larynx, tongue and lips.  But an international team of scientists, led by Tecumseh Fitch at the University of Vienna and Asif Ghazanfar at Princeton University, has now looked inside monkeys' vocal tracts with x-rays, and found them to be much more flexible than thought before. The study indicates that the limitations that keep nonhuman primates from speaking are in their brains, rather than their vocal anatomy.

The scientists used x-ray video to see within the mouth and throat of macaque monkeys induced to vocalize, eat food, or make facial expressions. They then used these x-rays to build a computer model of a monkey vocal tract, allowing them to answer the question "what would monkey speech sound like, if a human brain were in control?" This showed that monkeys could easily produce many different sounds, enough to produce thousands of distinct words. Examples of synthesized monkey speech can be heard here:  

This implies that a basic form of spoken language could have evolved at any time in human evolution, without requiring any changes in vocal anatomy.

Publication in "Science Advances":
W. T. Fitch, B. de Boer, N. Mathur, A. A. Ghazanfar, Monkey vocal tracts are speechready.
Sci. Adv. 2, e1600723 (2016).
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600723

Wissenschaftlicher Kontakt

Univ.-Prof. W. Tecumseh Fitch

Department für Kognitionsbiologie
Universität Wien
1090 - Vienna, Althanstraße 14
+43-1-4277-761 11
tecumseh.fitch@univie.ac.at

Rückfragehinweis

Mag. Alexandra Frey

Pressebüro der Universität Wien
Forschung und Lehre
Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1
+43-1-4277-175 33
+43-664-60277-175 33
alexandra.frey@univie.ac.at