7th International Conference on Spoken Language Processing

September 16-20, 2002
Denver, Colorado, USA

The Evolution of Spoken Language: a Comparative Approach

W. Tecumseh Fitch

Harvard University, USA

We are entering a new era in the study of the evolution of spoken language, where poorly-grounded speculation based mainly on fossil evidence is being superseded by comparative, empirical study of living animals. This is particularly true for the evolution of speech, where a variety of methodologies and theoretical constructs developed by speech scientists have been applied to animal vocalization, greatly deepening our understanding of the evolutionary precursors to speech. Animals both produce and perceive formants, and the descent of the larynx has both homologous and analogous equivalents in the animal world. Vocal imitation, which is key to spoken language, does not exist in other primates but is found in a far-flung group including birds, seals and dolphins. Despite some illuminating results, a vast menagerie of fascinating vocal adaptations exist in vertebrates that are just beginning to be explored. These provide a fertile field for research by speech scientists, who have the skills and theoretical background to lead bioacoustic research into the next millennium.


Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2002): "The evolution of spoken language: a comparative approach", In ICSLP-2002, 1-8.