“What you’ll find in the textbooks is that monkeys can’t talk because they don’t have the appropriate vocal tract to do so. That, I think, is a myth. My colleagues and I all get very tired of seeing this. But you see it in all the textbooks. Lots of popular books, and also scholarly books about the evolution of language, assume that in order to evolve speech we had to have massive changes in our vocal tract. “
But Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna and his colleagues have busted this myth. As per a new study by the team, if you could rewire the way a monkey’s brain functions, you could probably hear them speak as clearly as we do.
To find out more about a monkey’s vocal tools, the researchers closely tracked the movement of a long tailed macaque’s mouth and throat through X-rays while he made a wide range of different gestures and sounds, including lip-smacks, yawns, chewing, coos and grunts. They then used that information to create a computer model of how it would sound if a monkey spoke.
You can listen to a monkey saying Happy Holidays here,
But why was it always assumed that monkeys did not have the vocal abilities to speak?
The researchers think that’s because earlier scientists only used dead animals and observed their vocal chords to assume what they could do. Fitch says that the capabilities of the non human mammals have always been under estimated.
Friday, in the journal Science Advances, his team reports that monkeys would be physically capable of producing five distinguishable vowels — the most common number of vowels found in the world’s languages. Consonant sounds within monkeys’ reach include those corresponding to the letters p, b, k, g, h, m and w.
The problem stems from the monkey’s brain. Monkeys’ brains do not have direct connections down to the neurons that control the larynx and the tongue. Additionally, their brains do not have the connection between the auditory cortex and the motor cortex. What this means is that monkeys cannot imitate what they hear the way humans can.
So monkeys have a speech ready vocal tract but not a speech ready brain. If you saw Caesar speaking in the Planet of the Apes movies, Fitch says that’s really an accurate description of what monkeys are capable of speaking if their brains wiring was altered.