Language is a tricky and fascinating thing. On the one hand, it could be said to be one of the defining features of our species. We talk, therefore we are intelligent. And it’s something we all do, wherever you find a group of humans you will find a language. But language is not unique to us, our cousin species, the Neanderthals, had a hyoid bone almost identical to our own thus they probably also had complex speech. But there are also plenty of indicators that whales, dolphins and even elephants may have their own forms of language as well, some of them apparently quite complex.
How we actually developed language is a huge mystery, one that will probably remain largely lost to the mists of time. But it’s worth noting that language is distinct from communication, which is a much more broad term. Most animals can be said to communicate, even if just through chemical signals or body language. But a new study on baboons seems to suggest that the origins of human language actually predates us, at least physically.
A joint French-American team led by Dr Louis-Jean Boe studied the vocalizations and mouth and throat anatomy of over 1300 Guinea baboons. And while the sounds these animals make may seem very different than human speech, the scientists found that present in the baboon’s alarm or breeding calls were vowel sounds similar to those of humans coinciding with another earlier study on monkeys that identified 5 separate vowel sounds in their vocalizations. By extension, this would suggest that the origins of human speech could go back further than 25 million years.
This calls into question a group of long-standing theories regarding the development of language. The general idea was that language wasn’t possible until the appearance of modern humans with our low or descended larynx. That means that the appearance of language coincided with our appearance. This in itself has been called into question before in that it’s not actually a unique feature to us, it’s known for example that certain species of deer also have a similar low larynx. It may actually be that the descended larynx of homo sapiens is not as important as once thought in the development of complex language. Instead, it may be more about the structure of the tongue and that our vocal system actually developed from structures already present in more primitive primate species such as the baboons in the study, at least as far as forming vowel sounds are concerned which is a key component of speech. But vowels are only one component, how consonants evolved is still not well understood.
But I suppose none of this should be surprising. One only has to spend an hour with a talking bird to be blown away by their powers of speech. It gets even stranger when you contemplate that the talking parrot you’re looking at is a descendant of the dinosaurs and has a vocal system entirely different from our own. Or go on YouTube and you’ll find a myriad of videos of various animals seemingly trying to vocalize something. And while most of this activity would simply be imitation, sometimes it may be more. There are old videos of dolphins apparently being taught to count using their blowhole and also videos of chimpanzees dynamically using another form of human language, sign language, in a way that’s far more than imitation. I’ve included some links to some of these videos in the description below, it really is quite extraordinary and shows that rudimentary vocalization is not solely the domain of humans.
But being me, I have to go off the rails and take it a step further and wonder about aliens. I can’t help but ask if language, as in verbal speech, is something we’re going to find an alien species. They would have to have some sort of method of communicating with each other to create a technological civilization, but does it need to be vocal? No, it can work like sign language does and be visual. Aliens do not necessarily need powers of speech for complex communications. It could even have evolved to be chemical. Or it could even be accomplished through bioluminescence like a kind of biological Morse code. Or it could be digital.
To go even further off the rails and into the world of futurism, I’ll suggest that someday humans may stop speaking at all and simply communicate wirelessly – I won’t use the word telepathically – between chips implanted in our heads. Entire thought conversations could be held without saying a word. Or we may choose not to pursue that technology because the idea is just too creepy. It remains to be seen. But the one thing we will share with aliens, however, are things that are the same across the universe like mathematics, physics, chemistry and so on. Science is the built-in language of the universe and through it establishing communications with alien races is possible. We can announce our presence, and so can they. Conversation, however, is a different matter and any kind of conversation would be maddeningly slow.