On the Evolution of the Syllable

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

American Anthropological Association

Conference Location

San Francisco


The syllable and metrical structure in spoken human language as well as beat structure in music both exhibit asymmetrical pulsing, stressed and unstressed syllable in language and on beat and non-beat notes in music. Early hominid vocalization was a type of pant-hoot in which vocalization was done during inhalation as well as exhalation (biphasic vocalization). The asymmetrical pulsing of this type of vocalization developed into meters in language and beats in music. I suggest that at least some aspects of human language evolved from sexual and/or hierarchical displays, where complexity would be advantageous. The complexity took the form of increased structuring and, with the move from biphasic vocalization to vocalization during exhalation, increased duration and modulation of the complex vocalizations. The asymmetrical pulses of biphasic voicing were preserved in the characteristic feature of human syllables as being strong or weak. Furthermore, while vowels carry prosodic information such as pitch and intensity, consonants were initially needed to mark a division between the pulses during exhaled-only speech. Initially, syllables took the form CV, a form that is ubiquitous in languages and during language acquisition by children. Because of the lack of direct evidence for language evolution, we are forced to use indirect evidence including: (1) Looking at the evolution and function of vocal communication in other distantly related species, such as birds; (2) Comparing human communication with primate communication ; (3) Look at neural functioning in humans and non-human primates during communication; (4) Looking at the development of language in human children.


Linguistic Anthropology

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