Decoding the Origins of Speech

The simple act of talking comes to us automatically. But did you know that we use 225 muscles in the chest, larynx, throat, mouth and face in each second when we speak? According to Peter MacNeilage, the extraordinary complexity of speech is an invisible miracle.

Using a Darwinian approach, MacNeilage, professor of psychology, deconstructs the miracle of human language in “The Origin of Speech: Studies in the Evolution of Language” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Piecing together a mixture of linguistic and nonlinguistic sources such as evolution theory, psychology, animal behavior and neurobiology, MacNeilage assembles a thought-provoking overview of how our powerful communication system originated and evolved.

Challenging Noam Chomsky’s theory that speech is naturally hardwired in brain patterns, MacNeilage explains how it changed in response to evolutionary pressures for more efficient communication. His proposals include the observation that speech formed from bodily movements, such as chewing, smacking and swallowing, which paired with vocalized syllables, transcended into language.

This book is a good resource for readers interested in cognitive and evolutionary science – and to anyone with a curiosity about their language, where it came from, and how it morphed into its present state.

MacNeilage has published more than 120 papers on the topics of neurobiology, language and evolution. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral and Social Sciences.