Modern humans have a pretty wide range of vocal abilities, making it possible for us to speak, sing, whisper, chant and scream, while our other ape cousins and other animals have a very limited range of sounds. But when did this change happen in hominids and what did we sounds like before? Researchers in the Netherlands are trying to find out.
One of the major changes is when we lost our air sac, a balloon-like organ that allows for the very deep, loud bellowing noises that creatures like chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are capable of.
Conversely, old hominids still had the air sac, such as the specimen “Lucy’s baby”, named for the more famous specimen Lucy and much like her an Australopithecus afarensis girl from 3.3. million years ago. This would have meant they had a much more limited repertoire of sounds they could make. We know she still had the air sac because of the presence of the hyoid bulla, a skeletal feature to which the air sac anchors itself.
To mimic the air sac, de Boer created artificial vocal tracts using the plastic tubes, half of which featured an extra chamber where the air sac would be. He then could force air down the tracts and, depending on how he arranged the tracts, they would create different vowel sounds. He recorded these vowel sounds and then played them for 22 people, asking them to identify the various vowel sounds they heard.
De Boer added and subtracted noise over the recordings based on how well the subjects could identify the different sounds. He found that those listening to the more modern vocal tracts could identify vowel sounds through far more noise than those who wee listening to the air sac tracts. Basically, the air sacs were like bass drums, which created low frequency resonance and, in turn, made the vowel sounds combine and become indistinguishable.
This means that Lucy and her people would have had tremendous difficulty distinguishing between even the most basic of words - something like “tin” and “ten” would sound essentially the same to her, meaning their potential vocabulary would be greatly, greatly reduced. The air sacs also limited the ability to create consonants, making lengthier words with several different sounds in it all but impossible to say.
As for the first word spoken by our ancient ancestors, de Boer has come up with a rather amusing possibility. He says that most vowels tend to sound like the “u” sound in words like “ugg” - which makes cartoon depictions of cavemen where they make sounds like that surprisingly accurate. However, cavemen probably didn’t say “ugg”, because it was easier to form words with the consonant first followed by a vowel. And the easiest consonant to put before the vowel “u” happens to be “d.” Yes, before any other word, it’s possible our ancestors were just saying, “Duh.” Seems so obvious now, doesn’t it?
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