Surprising Human Speech Patterns Observed In Ethiopian Primate
April 9, 2013

New Research Compares Lip-Smacking Of Geladas To Human Speech Patterns

[ Watch the Video: Gelada Lip Smacks and Wobbles ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A species of wild baboon-like primate found in Africa is capable of producing noises that are surprisingly similar to human speech, one University of Michigan researcher claims in a new study.

The gelada, which resides in the remote mountains of Ethiopia, makes a series of lip-smacking sounds that have a speech-like, undulating rhythm, Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor explains in Monday´s edition of the journal Current Biology.

Calls of other monkeys and apes tend to be only one or two syllables in length, and lack the gelada´s rapid pitch and volume fluctuations, Bergman explained in his study. That makes the gelada the only nonhuman primate known to communicate in a method similar to people, and according to Geoffrey Mohan of the Los Angeles Times, they could “represent an evolutionary link between primate communication and human speech.”

Bergman told Daily Mail reporter Mark Prigg that he first became interested by the baboon-like creature´s speech-like noises while observing them in 2006. He said that he would frequently hear the sound and turn around, thinking that someone was talking to him, only to discover that it was just the geladas.

Bergman said that it was “unnerving” hearing primate vocalizations that were so similar-sounding to human voices. It wasn´t until he found another study suggesting that lip-smacking was a possible first step to human speech that he decided to analyze the noises produced by the geladas.

He analyzed the recordings of their vocalizations, which are also known as “wobbles,” and discovered a rhythm which closely matches our speech patterns. In both lip-smacking and speech, the rhythm corresponds to the opening and closing of parts of the mouth, the professor explained, and he believes that it is possible that the primates´ noises are similar in nature to small talk amongst friends.

“Language is not just a great tool for exchanging information; it has a social function. Many verbal exchanges appear to serve a function similar to lip-smacking,” Bergman said. “Our finding provides support for the lip-smacking origins of speech because it shows that this evolutionary pathway is at least plausible. It demonstrates that nonhuman primates can vocalize while lip-smacking to produce speech-like sounds.”