Primate Vocalization, Gesture, and the Evolution of Human Language

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520, USA.
Current Anthropology (Impact Factor: 2.93). 01/2009; 49(6):1053-63; discussion 1063-76. DOI: 10.1086/593015
Source: PubMed


The performance of language is multimodal, not confined to speech. Review of monkey and ape communication demonstrates greater flexibility in the use of hands and body than for vocalization. Nonetheless, the gestural repertoire of any group of nonhuman primates is small compared with the vocabulary of any human language and thus, presumably, of the transitional form called protolanguage. We argue that it was the coupling of gestural communication with enhanced capacities for imitation that made possible the emergence of protosign to provide essential scaffolding for protospeech in the evolution of protolanguage. Similarly, we argue against a direct evolutionary path from nonhuman primate vocalization to human speech. The analysis refines aspects of the mirror system hypothesis on the role of the primate brain's mirror system for manual action in evolution of the human language-ready brain.

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    • "Recent findings suggest that chimpanzee alarm calls are intentional: they direct them more frequently to allies, persist until their allies are out of danger, and monitor responses (Schel et al., 2013). Both monkeys and apes are more likely to call around certain individuals, suggesting volitional control of vocalizations (Arbib et al., 2008). "
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    • "Primates regularly communicate their emotions through facial expressions and vocalizations (Ekman 1993, 1997; Parr et al. 2005), but gestures are mainly restricted to humans and apes where they are very frequent during play (Liebal et al. 2006; Pollick and de Waal 2007; Genty et al. 2009; Hobaiter and Byrne 2011a). Gestures are conventionally classified as ''intentional'' signals (Leavens et al. 2005), because they are linked to less evolutionary urgent functions and are produced voluntarily by the sender (Call and Tomasello 2007; Arbib et al. 2008). Two main criteria define intentional signals, they must be: (1) used in social contexts (Leavens et al. 2005) and (2) influenced by the attentional status of the observer (Bakeman and Adamson 1986; O'Neill 1996). "
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    • "In addition, apes' gesture production takes into account the attentional state of the recipient (Tanner, 2004; Tomasello et al., 1994). Among apes, there is also a high degree of individual variability in the production and use of gestures due to processes of both ontogenetic ritualization and social learning (Arbib et al., 2008; Tomasello, 2008). For these reasons, according to Tomasello (2008: 21), ''great ape gestural communication shares with human linguistic communication foundational aspects of its manner of functioning, namely, the intentional and flexible use of learned communicative signals.'' "
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