Evolution of mammalian vocal signals: development of semiotic content and semantics of human language

Klaus Zuberbühler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Citations (Scopus)


Human language is the product of a specialized cognitive architecture that interacts with a uniquely adapted vocal apparatus. Current evidence suggests that many of the necessary core components, mental concepts, social awareness, cooperative motivation and vocal control, are also present in non-human animals, in various rudimentary forms. First, the ability to represent the world in terms of mental concepts appears to have evolved early, although it is difficult to determine how animal concepts compare with those of humans. Second, apes have demonstrated a high degree of social awareness and cooperative motivation, which are other key components of the language faculty, although these features are also found in other social mammals. Vocal control, finally, is well-developed in humans, but relevant precursors are also seen in non-human animals. The emerging picture is one of a patchwork of adaptations, uniquely combined and elaborated in humans, suggesting that many of the critical language components are latently present in the mammalian class. Cooperation and acoustic control have evolved through convergent evolution, suggesting that these capacities are latently present in a wide range of species. Mental concepts and social awareness have a more clearly visible phylogenetic history, with social awareness exhibiting the most limited distribution.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Behavioral Neuroscience
PublisherElsevier Science B.V.
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2010

Publication series

NameHandbook of Behavioral Neuroscience
ISSN (Print)1569-7339


  • alarm calls
  • cooperation
  • gestures
  • intention
  • mental concept
  • referential
  • semantic
  • semiotic
  • social intelligence
  • triadic awareness


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