The evolution of human speech: the role of enhanced breathing control

Am J Phys Anthropol. 1999 Jul;109(3):341-63. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-8644(199907)109:3<341::AID-AJPA5>3.0.CO;2-2.


Many cognitive and physical features must have undergone change for the evolution of fully modern human language. One neglected aspect is the evolution of increased breathing control. Evidence presented herein shows that modern humans and Neanderthals have an expanded thoracic vertebral canal compared with australopithecines and Homo ergaster, who had canals of the same relative size as extant nonhuman primates. Based on previously published analyses, these results demonstrate that there was an increase in thoracic innervation during human evolution. Possible explanations for this increase include postural control for bipedalism, increased difficulty of parturition, respiration for endurance running, an aquatic phase, and choking avoidance. These can all be ruled out, either because of their evolutionary timing, or because they are insufficiently demanding neurologically. The remaining possible functional cause is increased control of breathing for speech. The main muscles involved in the fine control of human speech breathing are the intercostals and a set of abdominal muscles which are all thoracically innervated. Modifications to quiet breathing are essential for modern human speech, enabling the production of long phrases on single expirations punctuated with quick inspirations at meaningful linguistic breaks. Other linguistically important features affected by variation in subglottal air pressure include emphasis of particular sound units, and control of pitch and intonation. Subtle, complex muscle movements, integrated with cognitive factors, are involved. The vocalizations of nonhuman primates involve markedly less respiratory control. Without sophisticated breath control, early hominids would only have been capable of short, unmodulated utterances, like those of extant nonhuman primates. Fine respiratory control, a necessary component for fully modern language, evolved sometime between 1.6 Mya and 100,000 ya.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fossils*
  • Hominidae
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Respiration*
  • Speech*
  • Thorax / anatomy & histology