Increased breathing control: Another factor in the evolution of human language


  • Ann Maclarnon,

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    • Ann MacLarnon is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Research in Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Roehampton. She has worked on a range of topics in comparative primate biology, including the evolution of the spinal cord, brain, reproductive life histories, and the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Gwen Hewitt

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    • Gwen Hewitt is a Research Associate in the Department of Education at King's College, University of London, and a lecturer in the School of Life & Sport Sciences, University of Roehampton. Her main research interests have centered on psychophysiological topics.


Investigation into the evolution of human language has involved evidence of many different kinds and approaches from many different disciplines. For full modern language, humans must have evolved a range of physical abilities for the production of our complex speech sounds, as well as sophisticated cognitive abilities. Human speech involves free-flowing, intricately varied, rapid sound sequences suitable for the fast transfer of complex, highly flexible communication. Some aspects of human speech, such as our ability to manipulate the vocal tract to produce a wide range of different types of sounds that form vowels and consonants, have attracted considerable attention from those interested in the evolution of language.1, 2 However, one very important contributory skill, the human ability to attain very fine control of breathing during speech, has been neglected. Here we present evidence of the importance of breathing control to human speech, as well as evidence that our capabilities greatly exceed those of nonhuman primates. Human speech breathing demands fine neurological control of the respiratory muscles, integrated with cognitive processes and other factors. Evidence from comparison of the vertebral canals of fossil hominids and those of extant primates suggests that a major increase in thoracic innervation evolved in later hominid evolution, providing enhanced breathing control. If that is so, then earlier hominids would have had quite restricted speech patterns, whereas more recent hominids, with human-like breath control abilities, would have been capable of faster, more varied speech sequences.