IF ONLY THEY COULD TALK...

MON­KEY VO­CAL TRACTS ARE SPEECH-READY, AC­CORD­ING TO NEW RE­SEARCH, SO WHAT’S STOP­PING THEM?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Wild News - STU­ART BLACK­MAN SOURCE: Science Ad­vances LINK: http://bit.ly/2jbIuak

It’s some­thing of a tragedy that we can­not con­verse with our pri­mate cousins. With so much in com­mon, there would surely be plenty to talk about.

It has long been pon­dered why our clos­est rel­a­tives are in­ca­pable of speech. And, ac­cord­ing to new re­search, one fash­ion­able pos­si­bil­ity can now be ruled out.

There are two broad ex­pla­na­tions to ac­count for non-hu­man pri­mates’ lack of con­ver­sa­tional skills. One is that their vo­cal tracts can­not form the va­ri­ety of sounds re­quired. The other is that their brains and ner­vous sys­tems are not wired up to con­trol the sounds.

The new study analy­ses the anatomy of the vo­cal tracts of rhe­sus macaques and finds that their lar­ynx, vo­cal chords, mouth and tongue should be quite ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing the range of vowel and con­so­nant sounds re­quired to mimic hu­man speech.

Te­cum­seh Fitch of the Univer­sity of Vi­enna, who led the re­search, told BBC Wildlife that he would ex­pect great apes to be even more suited to speech – anatom­i­cally, at least. “Apes have bet­ter and more vol­un­tary con­trol over their vo­cal tract – lips, tongue and jaws – than mon­keys,” he ex­plained.

It re­mains far from clear, though, pre­cisely what their ner­vous sys­tems are lack­ing. Let’s sup­pose, for ex­am­ple, that it’s pos­si­ble to pro­vide a pri­mate with the wiring re­quired to finely con­trol its vo­cal­i­sa­tions. Would it then be able to speak?

“If you just gave it the wiring for vo­cal con­trol, it could mimic words and im­i­tate sounds, like a my­nah bird or par­rot – which no mon­key has ever done – but not ‘speak its mind’,” said Fitch.

That’s be­cause lan­guage also re­quires other com­plex neu­ro­log­i­cal cir­cuitry be­fore a real con­ver­sa­tion is pos­si­ble.

“I’m sure mon­keys would have lots to say if they had the full pack­age of speech, syn­tax and se­man­tics that un­der­lies lan­guage,” said Fitch. “All the cog­ni­tive work shows that mon­keys know a lot about the world: about other mon­keys, about food, about lo­ca­tions, etc. But that would re­quire more than just vo­cal con­trol.”

Rhe­sus macaques ‘talk’ us­ing coos and grunts, ges­tures and fa­cial ex­pres­sions.

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