The “Ooooooohhhh!” a human being cries out when they stub their toe might sound a pretty similar to the “Ooooooohhhh!” they cry out at the end of their mating ritual, but they two calls are different. An important part of human-to-human communication is our ability to extract information from context-specific calls and integrate it with other information we already have to make sense of what we’re hearing. It’s how we know, if we’re standing in one room and the TV is on in another, the difference between the scream of a serial killer’s victim in a slasher movie and the scream of a hero going into battle in an action blockbuster. We might not know what kind of movie is on in there, but we can at least identify which end of a blade the screamer might be on.
Katie Slocombe, a lecturer at the University of York’s psychology department, has spent her career tracing the evolution of different aspects of human language. More often than not, she finds herself starting with pants, grunts, hoots and hollers of chimpanzees. Many people find this surprising, Slocombe has said, but they shouldn’t. Finding an evolutionary explanation for any part of human language is difficult. Unlike, say, wrist bones, spoken language hasn’t left any fossil remains behind for us to study. Genetic evidence from our hominid ancestors suggests that we evolved our capacity for complex spoken language in a very short window of time, so it’s likely that the cognitive abilities underlying language emerged farther back in the primate lineage. Hence it makes perfect sense to look to other living primates, apes and monkeys, for clues to language’s origins. [Read more]