Primate roots of speech and language

Klaus Zuberbühler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Human language is largely a vocal behaviour that has evolved from a more ancient primate communication system. Although vocalizations are also the main way by which nonhuman primates communicate and interact socially it has been difficult to demonstrate direct transitions from non-linguistic primate vocal communication to human language. Nevertheless, several continuities are apparent. First, primates produce and perceive sounds by specialized anatomical and neural structures also present in humans. Compared to humans, however, nonhuman primates are severely limited in the amount of control they have over vocal production, which restricts their ability for phonology, syntax, and vocal learning. But language is also a cognitive capacity and here there is good evidence that primates understand others' calls as given by specific individuals to specific events or social interactions. In great apes, moreover, callers can take the past history with their audience into account, by suppressing, exaggerating and socially directing their calls in strategic ways. Yet, there is no clear evidence that primates, apart from humans, perceive others as governed by complex mental states, such as shared knowledge or false beliefs, during acts of communication. Also, primates do not seem to be motivated to convey knowledge relevant to their audience and there is no clear indication that they use vocal behaviour for the purpose of social bonding. The current hypothesis is that these differences in cognition and motivation have prevented the evolution of flexible, combinatorial vocal communication in nonhuman primates.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOrigins of Human Language
Subtitle of host publicationContinuities and Discontinuities with Nonhuman Primates
PublisherPeter Lang AG
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9783631738085
ISBN (Print)9783631737262
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2018


  • Intentionality in communication
  • Nonhuman primate communication
  • Referential communication


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