What human language is almost dead

The key to the origin of human language lies in the phonetics of the baboon

Is human language much older than was previously believed? - Part 3

Part 1: The baboon's tongue

Part 2: What the monkey is talking about

It sounds amazing, doesn't it? But our closest relatives, the hominids - gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan - don't even have an elemental pidgin. One cannot say of them that they will have caught up with us linguistically in six million years at the latest. Only the bonobos beep at each other in a command tone, in an elementary binary code, like an American traffic light: "Walk!", "Don't Walk!" - "Do that. Don't do that." And they understand the message because they can interpret the gaze of the speaker. "Give me the nut." - "You take the stick there." That's still a lot less than Tarzan's famous "Me Tarzan. You Jane."

On the other hand, our scientists found it difficult to throw off their blinkers. For 150 years they refused to recognize the Neanderthals as "humans", they persistently denied him the ability to speak. Sometimes he was missing the hyoid bone until one was finally found in Israel. Then again his larynx was too high, like the hominids. So it could not have had a normal timbre as we are used to; at best he should have reduced everything he said in a falsetto voice to the one vowel "E".

Allan Wilson, the New Zealand-American geneticist who developed the thesis of the African origin of all people living today, also suspected that Neanderthals must have been "speechless". They are dying out, he said, because speechless children would have been produced during sex between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals who, as "village idiots", would have been sexually unattractive for the next generation. That was still the common thesis when Wilson died in 1991.

Today we must assume that there was a reason all hominids withdrew from the world. The gigantic orangutans of Southeast Asia died out as early as the Homo erectus period, presumably as the prey of their human adversaries. Only their "dwarfish" relatives, today's orangs, survived on safe islands and high treetops. (Until just now.) The Congolese mountain gorilla, who so excited George Schaller and Dian Fossey ("Gorillas in the Fog"), survived in inaccessible regions and thanks to its thick fur. Unfortunately, that doesn't protect against the guns of today's hunters who cook his meat and sell his dried paws as ashtrays.

There are only two successful species of monkey, besides humans, which are found all over the world. Macaques and baboons. Everyone knows the pictures of the Japanese macaques, how they sit by the hundreds in the snow with their thick fur or how curiously gawking people beg for nuts. Everyone knows the YouTube films of the desperate people in India who try to drive intrusive baboons out of their kitchens. And so are the macaques.

Macaques could speak, but they won't

But only recently, very recently, did scientists come up with the idea of ​​examining (or placing them under an X-ray machine) these - like humans - successfully spread all over the world and highly communicative animals. The American cognitive biologist Tecumseh Fitch and colleagues working in Vienna x-rayed the oral cavity of living macaques while they were eating, grimacing and making noises. With this data, they created a computer program to study the macaques' ability to speak.

It turned out that they can easily manage the same vowels as humans (a, e, i, o, u) and numerous consonants (p, b, k, g, h, and m) - so they have all the requirements to speak like humans. "The model shows", wrote Fitch in a broadcast, "that it would be easy for monkeys to produce many different speech sounds in order to form thousands of different words from them." In fact, sentences like "Will you marry me?" or "Joyeux noel", hardly distinguishable from human voices - the English sentences even sounded somehow "American", they said.

Why don't the macaques speak anyway? Fitch said that although they had a vocal tract that was suitable for speaking, they lacked the necessary prerequisites in the brain for speech to express and combine sounds in a controlled manner.

Similar results came from France. A group led by Joel Fagot at the University of Aix-Marseille, not far from Marseille, identified sounds in baboons that are related to human vowels and consonants. This elaborate process led to the conclusion that baboons produce the same sounds as human children around the age of 12. The lack of a deeper larynx was assessed as negligible.

The French scientists recently came to the conclusion that human language did not come into being "de novo" (completely suddenly) around 100,000 years ago, but that an equivalent proto-vocal system also existed in our last common ancestor with today's baboons around 25 million years ago and that this system laid the foundation for all human languages ​​that exist today.

And the baboon's tongue - although it is slightly longer than that of Gene Simmons - was recognized in its functionality as fully comparable to the human tongue. To this end, there were two anatomical studies on male and female baboons that had died of natural causes before the project began.

Mystery not yet fully resolved

However, this does not solve the mystery of human language. The Broca area and the Wernicke center in the brain, comparable to the ear and mouth part of an ancient telephone receiver - important for understanding and expressing language - are also found in the brain of the smallest monkeys. There these parts serve other functions, but we encounter proto-linguistic elements in all of our ape relatives. And not just there.

A sound recording of the typical evening song of a blackbird - comparable to the six o'clock news on the radio - turns out to be a complex composition if the recording is slowed down. Conversely, if you take an underwater recording of the song of a typical blue whale and accelerate the playback speed, you think you are listening to the song of a blackbird. These similarities may be purely coincidental, but they are too striking to be completely without meaning.

No less surprising are the musical achievements of a cat brain - after all only half the size of a walnut - that remembers music that the animal heard in its first six months of life. Not different with humans. Music that the baby heard in early childhood also appears "familiar" to the 20-year-old, depending on whether it is pleasant or uncomfortable. I myself was able to experience that the Berlin dialect, which I had only heard until around the age of four, was completely restored and present again after a short time when I visited Berlin more extensively at the age of 37. And even today, if I can't utter a word in anger or frustration and only mock and stammer, I almost automatically sink to the lowest level of my linguistic socialization and become again Donut.

I have also seen this very early language layer in babies who have not yet been able to speak. I once spoke to a mother in Vienna, in English, whose child had only uttered a single vowel in the pram. The mother's English language image was already perfectly represented in this vowel.

I would like to add two more conclusions here: Human language seems to represent a genetic mutation that suddenly occurred under certain circumstances, certainly not in the savannah, and to make use of all those speech tools that had long been prepared in the ape families learned. In order to be able to do that, to create this complex combination of sounds, a certain size and internal wiring of the brain were required. The baboons, macaques, and the large hominids have these characteristics Not.

Even we modern people start using the language sometimes at 15 months and sometimes only at three and a half years. The parents are concerned, they go to the speech therapist, they have the child's ears checked (whether the girl may be hard of hearing), and so on. No, it is normal. And suddenly, at the age of three and a half, she begins to babble, in ready-made sentences. And doesn't stop anymore.

It seems to be like Fahrenheit 451. 1

It takes a certain amount of cubic capacity in the brain before language can start. In the three-year-old, this can lead to the late start of language, to "Einstein's syndrome". But language "comes" first to birth, because the brain has to mature first, but it is clear that the entire evolutionary process that made a baboon's cousin become human had to be voice-controlled. And run away is. Because it is we who stand on top of the Empire State Building - and not King Kong, for example.

The question arises, however, whether, for example, the hobbits on Flores, by continually shrinking, did not go below this process at some point, turned into its opposite, whether the limbo bar was ultimately too low to give them a life as To enable people. But it is easy to see that verbal communication, practically at the most ordinary telenovela level, almost at the level of baboons and macaques, would have been perfectly adequate. Hunger, love, jealousy.

Even the smallest of monkeys are perfect Space Invaders players. But at some point, perhaps actually only 30,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was suddenly capable of those speech and memory skills that allowed him to put aside the simple counting rhymes when making the hand ax and create complex tools. The time of modern man had begun. What was it that delivered the kick? I suspect simply the large number, synergies of mutual influence.

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