Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Sat, 04 Jan 1997 23:59:15 -0500

John A. Halloran wrote:

> >Nonetheless, the fact that adult humans are the only animals in
> >existence with a vocal tract that represents a health hazard when one
> >does something as fundamental as eat and drink, points to the overriding
> >importance that language has been to our progenitors.
> This is a strong statement.

Yes, I will admit that it is.

> It assumes that symbolic language can be the only reason for increased
> vocalization in genus homo.

Not quite. "Increased vocalization" is too general of a term. The
human supralaryngeal airway has become customized, if you will, in favor
of articulatory ability, so that we may produce a wide range of vowel
and consonant sounds. This customization has resulted in compromises,
however, the most significant of which is the increased choking hazard
we humans face in comparison to all other animals. Given this
maladaptive construction of the supralaryngeal airway in humans, it only
stands to reason that there must have been an exceedingly powerful
selectional force at work to offset the hazards. A growing number of
prominent linguists and paleoanthropologists believe this force was the
adapative advantage conferred by language. (cf: Bickerton, 1990; Walker
& Shipman, 1996; Pinker, 1994; Leakey & Lewin, 1993; Lieberman, 1984)

> Other authors have pointed out that our ancestors
> were hominids who began following a wolf-like existence, but without wolves'
> olfactory equipment for determining group membership and marking territory.
> The visual-auditory senses had to assume this role among hominids.

Perhaps, but this is mere speculation. What evidence do we have for
this wolf-like behavior?

> It would be interesting to compare the carrying distance of the adult male
> human voice to that of non-hunting primate voices. The ability to vocalize
> over long distances may be tied to the new wide-ranging hunting lifestyle of
> humans. Human males in hunting cultures become hunters when their voices
> deepen in adolescence. Low-frequency calls are able to travel longer
> distances than are high-frequency calls.

There is nothing in your argument that requires the evolution of H.
sapiens' supralaryngeal airway, which has been refined so that it can
produce an expanded variety of vowel sounds and consonants. Most
consonants, with the possible exception of nasals, liquids, and glides
([n], [m], [l], [r], [w], [y]) will not carry much of any distance at
all. Even the aforementioned ones will not carry very far, with the
possible exception of the retroflex [r]. I dare say that H. erectus, H.
neanderthalensis, even the Australopithecines would have been able to
hoot and howl just as effectively as we can. Please note that the above
mentioned species did not possess the same vocal tract morphology that
we do -- theirs was much closer to that of current-day apes.

> Human brains are specialized to recognize individuals from their distinctive
> voices. Hunting vocalizations did not have to be of the words of a symbolic
> language.

I don't entirely disagree with this, but I also don't see how your point
refutes my original claim.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics