Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

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Why monkeys don’t speak English

… or any other human language for that matter. Even though both monkeys and humans have the anatomical tools for speech, only humans communicate in this manner. Researchers had assumed, incorrectly, that the anatomy of the vocal tract (lips, tongue, larynx) of monkeys was not capable of producing speech. A new study published in Science Advances shows instead that it is all in our heads.

The researchers came to this conclusion after creating x-ray videos of macaques making sounds and eating. They used these videos to create computer models that could translate the movements they observed in the vocal tract to possible sounds. What they found was that macaques could in theory create enough different vocalizations for human speech. Therefore, the recent findings suggest that the reason humans are able to speak is due to our brain’s ability to control our vocal tract.

Using computer models, researchers also simulated what a macaque might sound like if it could speak English in this YouTube video:

This is rather timely research given the upcoming opening of the new movie War for the Planet of the Apes next July (2017). The Director should have checked out this research before assuming what a monkey with vocal control might sound like.


WT Fitch, B de Boer, N Mathur, AA Ghazanfar. Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready. Science Advances. 2(12): e1600723, 2016


Categories: Intelligence and Neuroscience

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