The evolution of speech: a comparative review

Trends Cogn Sci. 2000 Jul;4(7):258-267. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01494-7.


The evolution of speech can be studied independently of the evolution of language, with the advantage that most aspects of speech acoustics, physiology and neural control are shared with animals, and thus open to empirical investigation. At least two changes were necessary prerequisites for modern human speech abilities: (1) modification of vocal tract morphology, and (2) development of vocal imitative ability. Despite an extensive literature, attempts to pinpoint the timing of these changes using fossil data have proven inconclusive. However, recent comparative data from nonhuman primates have shed light on the ancestral use of formants (a crucial cue in human speech) to identify individuals and gauge body size. Second, comparative analysis of the diverse vertebrates that have evolved vocal imitation (humans, cetaceans, seals and birds) provides several distinct, testable hypotheses about the adaptive function of vocal mimicry. These developments suggest that, for understanding the evolution of speech, comparative analysis of living species provides a viable alternative to fossil data. However, the neural basis for vocal mimicry and for mimesis in general remains unknown.