Dr. Thore Bergman, Professor of Psychology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

The Origins of Language: From Picking Fleas to Shooting the Breeze

If you read this sentence out loud, two things will happen: you will produce a combination of sounds you have never produced before and you will produce more sounds than many animals produce across their lifetime. This is true even for our closest relatives, the non-human primates, who have only about 20 different sounds. Moreover, these sounds never change and are rarely combined together. The vast difference between our vocal flexibility and that of other animals highlights not only our human uniqueness but also the difficulty in understanding where our abilities came from. To solve this puzzle, scientists have looked more broadly at non-vocal communication in primates to find potential precursors to speech. In this talk, I will describe what we know about communication across primates, and I will highlight potential precursors to human speech, such as primate gestures and facial expressions (“lip-smacking”) used during grooming. As many know, grooming - where animals pick through each other’s fur – is a form of bonding that is the social glue of the primate world. And, remarkably, when monkeys simply activate their vocal cords while lip-smacking, we hear a very speech-like sound. Might this be a potential starting point for human speech?

Stream talk here

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