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Can Monkeys Talk? Their Vocal Cords are Designed for Speech But Their Brains Aren't

Dec 11, 2016 10:54 AM EST

A new research from the University of Vienna has revealed that the vocal tract of non-human primates such as monkeys and apes are designed for talking but their brains are not wired for it.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, reveal that the inability of monkeys to talk does not lie on their vocal anatomy but their brains. In fact, the researchers did x-rays of the vocal tracts of monkeys and found out that their larynx, tongue and lips are more flexible than what scientists previously thought.

Using x-ray video, the team of scientists, led by Tecumseh Fitch at the University of Vienna and Asif Ghazanfar at Princeton University, analyzed the mouth and throat of macaque monkeys while they consume food, vocalize and create facial expressions, Science Daily reports. The scientists used the data from the x-ray video to make a model of the monkeys' vocal tract. The model showed that these animals could easily talk if they wanted to -- however, the problem lies in their brains.

This changes a previous study done by cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman who said that monkeys are only capable of producing vowels and not a full string of words. Different from examining a live monkey, Lieberman and his team examined a dead rhesus macaque monkey for the study back in the 1960s, CS Monitor reports.

“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," Ghazanfar told New Scientist.

Meanwhile, Lieberman has applauded the new study, telling CS Monitor that the team has done an excellent job but noted that even though monkeys have the vocal cords to talk, there are still "nuances" and "it wouldn't be an effective means of communication."

Ghazanfar said that despite the growing evidence of monkeys, particularly great ape species, learning to pronounce vowel-like sounds, they are still far from developing and adapting human speech -- even that of a baby.

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