Re: Human Language. (long post)

John A. Halloran (
10 Jan 1997 00:34:03 -0700

In article <> Michael McBroom <> writes:
>> What are the oldest skeletons that show evolution away from the primate vocal
>> tract pattern?

>There is evidence to suggest that the hominid vocal tract began to
>deviate from the standard plan with the species H. habilis. This puts
>the beginnings of language back some 2+ MY.

How do you reconcile this with your opinion that Neanderthal man lacked
speech, or is that your opinion? Also, the comparative or historical
linguists that I have talked to feel that languages as we know them have their
origins in the Palaeolithic, which extends from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Why have the structures of language undergone so much evolution in the last
6,000 years if humans have had 2+ million years to perfect language?

>> Long-distance communication need not involve forming words involving
>> consonants. The long-distance vocalizations of other species serve a valuable
>> communicative function without requiring the enunciations that you describe.

>If we were to have evolved with a vocal tract optimized for
>long-distance communication, chances are that it would more closely
>resemble that of the howler monkey, an animal that does not have a
>descended larynx, yet is able to communicate over long distances quite

By stating merely that the howler monkey does not have a descended larynx, you
imply that its vocal tract has not evolved much from that of our primate
ancestors. But this is not the case at all, it has evolved in a very
different direction, and so does not contradict the need for the hominid
vocal tract to have evolved in order to achieve long-distance communication.
Here is a quote from the 1997 Grolier Interactive Encyclopedia,

"The howler monkeys, Alouatta, in the subfamily Alouattinae, are one of the
best-known New World monkeys. Their name is derived from their impressive
roaring displays used in defending their territories. These remarkable
vocalizations are produced with the aid of highly specialized structures. The
hyoid, a supportive bone at the base of the tongue, is enlarged and formed
into an egg-shaped hollow box, which acts as a resonating chamber. The thyroid
cartilage of the larynx (voice box) and the lower jaw are also enlarged."

In the case of humans, the descent of the larynx created a longer vocal tract
which serves as our resonating chamber.

>So, if our vocal
>apparatus was truly adapted to hooting and howling in deep baritones
>over long distances, we should expect to find a very efficient vocal
>system that has been optimized to produce low tones with great energy.
>We simply don't have it.

I hear what you are saying. There are, however, tradeoffs in human
development, such as the need for females and preadolescent males to avoid
appearing to present a threat until they are strong enough to defend
themselves. Biologists have found a direct link between testosterone and how
deep a man's voice is. But there is a limit to how much the vocal pattern can
change as a result of adolescence, when the young man would become a hunter.

What do you think about how the human voice could become louder at any pitch
because descent of the larynx created a larger resonating chamber?

>Give it up.


John Halloran