Monkeys Have Speech-ready Voice Boxes, But Not Speech-ready Brains

That old cliché, “monkey see, monkey do” is true in many cases, as monkeys do like to mimic what they learn from humans. But try as they may, monkeys just can’t utter a word, even though their larynx, tongue and lips are genetically set up to do so. A new research study from the University of Vienna discovered that the vocal tract of non-human primates such as monkeys and apes are designed for talking but their brains are just not wired for it.

Not the ‘Planet of the Apes’

While Hollywood would like us to believe our closest cousins on the planet could eventually evolve to speak like humans — in actuality the inability for monkeys to talk does not rely on their vocal anatomy — but instead, it's their brains.

Using x-ray video, behaviorists analyzed the mouth and throat of macaque monkeys to construct a model of their vocal tracts. However, while the model proved these monkeys could easily talk if they wanted to — their brains just can't make the cognitive connection to do so.

“No one can say now that there’s a vocal anatomy problem with monkey speech. They have a speech-ready vocal anatomy, but not a speech-ready brain. Now we need to find out why the human but not the monkey brain can produce language," Princeton University’s Asif Ghazanfar told New Scientist.

Symbolic Language

Certain species of apes have been able to use sign language to communicate with humans. One famous case involved the late actor Robin Williams. With a friendship spanning almost 14 years, Robin Williams met Koko, the gorilla, at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA back in 2001. It’s been said that the now-departed beloved comedian and Koko established a genuine bond.

Koko uses a modified form of American Sign Language to communicate with humans. She knows over 1,000 words of sign language and has a working vocabulary of 500, which she uses in complex phrases. She also understands over 2,000 words of spoken English, and is said to understand the concept of death and grief.

When the news broke that Williams had passed, Koko’s doctor noted that the gorilla was genuinely moved. She became quiet and somber, bowing her head while her lips quivered in what has been interpreted as genuine grief.

In another study,  animal behaviorist Robert Seyfarth experimented with vervet monkeys and determined that while that species communicated in ways that resembled speech, their utterances were related more to ‘alarming sounds’ than actual words.

For instance, the vervets emit distinct alarm calls in response to spotting three different types of predators (leopards, eagles, and snakes), and the listeners will react differently with each sound. The calls appear to function as "representational, or semantic, signals.”

"When one vervet hears another give an eagle alarm call, the listener responds as if it had seen the eagle itself. This behavior suggests that in the monkey's mind, the call "stands for" or "conjures up images of" an avian predator even when the monkey has not yet see the eagle,” asserted Seyfarth. This video provides you with a more in-depth overview of this behavior.

So to date, while “monkey can see and do” in a lot of cases, speaking audible words is something that may take another 1000 years or so for evolution to make it happen. Parrots on the other hand — are a different story and a topic for exploration another day. "Polly want a cracker?"