The Loh Down On Science

Lip Service

The origins of human speech … straight from a monkey’s lips?
 
This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.
 
Monkeys often pucker and/or smack their lips slightly upon seeing each other. These gestures are mutual friendly signals. Like--come on over, I don’t bite. You might dismiss them as just silly monkey faces, but no.
 
Enter Asif Ghazanfar, from Princeton University. He videotaped rhesus macaques engaged in this monkey business. Then he analyzed the fine details of their facial movement. Turns out they totally ape those of human speech. The jaw, lips, and mouth show the same unique coordination. The tongue often protrudes – like when we make L or THE sounds.  Try it! Fun, huh?
 
Most surprising? Human lips move up and down ever so slightly about five times per second as we talk. It’s called speech rhythm. The monkeys? Identical. And these facial expressions in early monkeyhood match those of baby babble.
 
So human language may have evolved from the monkey lip-smack!
 
You know what they say: Talk is chimp.  Or at least we do.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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