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Leading Science Journal Publishes U of M Research About Language Development and Evolution

For release: April 3, 2013
For press information, contact Curt Guenther, 901-678-2843

Kimbrough Oller
Kimbrough Oller

Research led by University of Memphis Professor Kimbrough Oller has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. It appears in the publication’s current online edition.

The research deals with human infant sounds occurring by three months of age and with how evaluation of those sounds may reveal deep roots of human language, hinting at a very distant break from our primate relatives.

Oller holds the Plough Chair of Excellence in the U of M’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.  He is also associated with the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the U of M and with the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria.  The research was co-authored by Dr. Eugene Buder of U of M along with former PhD students and colleagues at other institutions.

The research was funded by the National Institutes for Health. 

The article claims that the first vocal changes that occurred as humans evolved away from their primate background on the way to language did not involve producing sentences or words, but instead involved primitive sounds expressing flexible functions and intentions. “Key answers about where language came from may be found in the human infant’s voice and face,” Oller said, “in the first free vocal expressions of joy and pain and in the peaceful vocal expressions of comfort.  By three months of age the human infant can already attach various states of emotion (as seen through facial expressions) to squealing, growling, and cooing, with each of these sound types connected to different emotions on different occasions. So, each of these precursors to speech can be produced along with facially expressed joy or distress, or with no apparent emotion at all.  Sounds with such freedom of expression are not known to occur in any other primate at any age, but language requires such freedom of expression all the time.”

The new paper by Oller and colleagues in PNAS demonstrates the vast difference in the first months of life between infants’ crying and laughter, which have fixed emotional functions (distress or playfulness) similar to those often seen in nonhuman primates, as opposed to the human infant sounds that can be used with flexible functions (squealing, growling and cooing) that appear to be absent in nonhumans. The authors point out that language could not exist without the sort of freedom of vocal expression found in the very young human infant, because all aspects of language are dependent upon flexibility of the usage of vocalizations. The authors argue that as the evolution of language began, it was necessary for it to start with such primitive beginnings, similar to primitive baby talk.

More information about Oller’s research is available in volumes he has written and edited, such as The Emergence of the Speech Capacity (Erlbaum, 2000), The Evolution of Communication Systems (MIT Press, 2004), The Evolution of Communicative Flexibility (MIT Press, 2008), or in his many articles (see website at http://umwa.memphis.edu/fcv/viewprofile.php?uuid=koller).

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