From “Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech” (ScienceDaily, May 31, 2012), we learn:
New research published in Current Biology by W. Tecumseh Fitch, Head of the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, supports the idea that human speech evolved less from vocalizations than from communicative facial gestures.
Intriguingly, chimpanzees also make communicative sounds with their lips, including both loud lip smacks and lip buzzes (“raspberries”). These lip gestures appear to be under voluntary control, and can be learned (unlike hoots or grunts). Similarly, orangutans can learn to whistle: again a sound produced using the lips and tongue, rather than the larynx.
Together, these data from our primate cousins support the idea that the origins of speech might be found in an evolutionary combination of “traditional” phonation (sounds produced by the vocal cords, in the larynx) with rapid, learned movements of the vocal tract, which have stronger similarities to primate facial signals than to their innate calls. But the origin of the “singing” component of speech, which requires voluntary control over the larynx, remains mysterious.
This theory gets us somewhere only if we redefine the problem. That is, if we focus away from complexity of human thought and language and toward which techniques were chosen first.
That’s somewhat like trying to understand the history of pictorial art solely in terms of whether ochre or charcoal came first. Or petroglyphs.
Of course it would be possible to construct a language from lip smacking. A number of human languages make use of clicks, and American Sign Language demonstrates that it can be done with the hands alone. Some totally paralyzed people have communicated using only the wink of an eye.
The fact is, monkeys never did construct a language through lip smacking, but humans have constructed languages using a variety of body parts. Why monkeys can’t and didn’t, and humans can and did is the scope of the problem. It’s probably not resolvable in a materialist paradigm, in which researchers are condemned to go on looking for distinctions that make no difference.
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