Why Can't Apes Talk?


We all know that parrots can talk. Some people may have even seen elephants, seals, or whales mimicking speech sounds. So why can’t our closest primate relatives speak like us? Our new research suggests they have the right vocal anatomy but not the brainpower to use it.

Scientists have been interested in understanding this phenomenon for centuries. Some have argued that nonhuman primates didn’t have the right-shaped body parts to make the same sounds as we do, and that human speech evolved after our speech organs changed. But comparative studies have shown that the form and function of the larynx and vocal tract is very similar across most primates species, including humans.

This suggests that the primate vocal tract is “speech ready” but that most species don’t have the neural control to make the complex sounds that comprise human speech. When reviewing the evidence in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote, “the brain has no doubt been far more important.”

A University Challenge question this week put me in mind that the hyoid bone is a unique and specialised structure that appears to have no significant function apart from anchoring the tongue making speech possible.

So chimps have one (apparently fortuitously, and not positioned for speech), but mo propensity for speech. Humans developed both speech and the right kind of hyoid in a classic chicken-egg way.

“Now I have a proper hyoid, all I need is a new brain and the world is mine.” Let’s see what happens after a bit of genetic drift…


And H. erectus appears to have possessed a hyoid bone transitional between Chimps and Modern humans. The great fun here is there is so little evidence about how complex early hominin languages were, we can speculate to our heart’s content. I do agree with Jon on one point. I doubt genetic drift was significant. Regarding the capacity for processing verbal communication (sending and receiving), there’s indications that language capacity (or at least aspects of it) were developing long before hominins had evolved from earlier primates.

Hi Jon BTW!


And “Hi” in return, Alan.

It’s interesting to speculate on what primitive language would be, both physically (an out of control larynx?) and mentally (“I have these wonderful ideas, but the damned words won’t come out…” or “Ugh works just fine if one limits metaphors to essentials.”)

As I posted here the other day, the erectus/Neanderthal hybrids raise an interesting question of communication… or maybe it just made it more difficult to claim lack of consent?

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What do you think about the FoxP2 gene? You’re already likely considering that as a driver of the brain parts you’re discussing, in part.

https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(09)00570-4 --this is the article I got from @sfmatheson.(to give credit)

An amusing way to make another point I agree with!

Of course one can’t evolve the adaptations required for language communication and then evolve the language nor vice versa. It has to be incremental co-evolution, strongly selected for - or evolutionary theory is wrong :open_mouth:


Speech and the making of the sounds that is used for speech are two things.
Parrots/all birds can easily mimic the sounds as they sound/sing all day long.
so their memory easily can duplicate human sound combinations.
Its just memorization.
likewise we do the same thing. We use our memory to organize sounds we make.
however its our intelligence that organizes our memory.
So primates can not talk because they are too dumb. nothing to say.
We are not primates but beings made in gOds image and we are brillient. wE have lots/too much to say.
yet the animals have the memory ability, sound ability to talk.
Once a animal did talk . Balaams donkey.
our intelligence/thoughts are what we expres. our memory/plus tongue does the practical work.
I doubt there is any bones etc difference between us and apes. No excuses.
The ignoring of the memory is the failing in evolutionary concepts that deal with language.

Suggest that you read:

I think I heard he was roundly criticized by other linguists.
Anyways its all wrong as it once again presumes a dumb primate evolving a bigger brain and heaps of time to accumulate concepts in language.
Adam spoke right away. language is only a simple use of sounds to express ideas/spirit as I see it. then its all memory.
Its thinking ability that separates from creatures and not speech. people who can’t talk, mute, are still thinking at a level beyond a animal and animal need /ability to talk.
I like the idea brought up in the review about intonations and , gestures9facial for me) as. yet I think intonation is just showing spirit and secondly thoughts.
They are rejecting Adam, babel, and memory as the core of human speech.
He is still preaching grunts to grammer.

You think you heard that he was criticized by other linguists. Well post those criticisms for discussion here.

I actually read the book and find Dr. Everett’s arguments and evidences that Homo Erectus from about 1.8 million years ago was human, had culture, had tool making industry, and thus had language that was taught and learned with the group and was past down parents to children.

It is not wrong. And Homo Erectus was not dumb. At the time Homo Erectus was the most cognitively developed species the Earth has ever seen. He had culture, language, tool making, occupied vast areas of the Earth and took ocean voyages. You are wrong to disparage your ancestors like this. If it wasn’t
for Homo Erectus you wouldn’t be here.

You have no evidence of that. Adam is merely a character in an ancient story written down thousands of years ago after Homo Sapian’s cognitive ability, culture, language, and wrting technology advanced to be able to write this mythology. It took 1.8 million years for humans to go from Homo Erectus culture and language to Homo Sapian language and culture to write a story with a character named Adam.

Read the book, it is all about early man’s language and culture, all 2 million years of it.