Science & Technology

Biologists Discovered What a Talking Monkey Would Sound Like, and It's Creepy

There are a lot of talking animal movies. But there aren't a lot of talking monkey movies. Maybe that's because monkeys are just too close to being human beings to begin with. On the one hand, they're already capable of emoting quite a bit. And on the other, the thought is just a little bit creepy. But for one group of researchers, the thought alone wasn't enough. They had to find out exactly how creepy talking monkeys would be.

Mimicking Monkey Mouths

Okay, so the scientists of this study weren't just trying to simulate the creepiest vocal capabilities possible. Some animals, most notably birds such as Alex the parrot, have shown themselves to be extremely capable of imitating human speech. What's interesting is that apes and other primates have never shown any capability of mimicking human speech, even though they are our closest relatives. It had long been assumed that these primates simply didn't have the proper mouth structure to form words. Their vocal tracts simply must lack the necessary flexibility.

And that's what it said in the textbooks, until evolutionary biologist William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III (yes, the grandson of famed Union general William Tecumseh Sherman) set out to find the truth of that assumption in 2016. With a trained macaque named Emiliano and an X-ray camera, he and his team mapped out the exact flexibility and vocal capabilities of a primate's mouth. They then used that simulation to vocalize arguably the creepiest thing you could ever hear a monkey say to you. Behold.

No, cyber-monkey, we won't marry you. But we're impressed with your existence. The mapping of this macaque's mouth proves a lot more than the monkey's ability to talk — it's similar enough in all the right ways to the mouths of other primates (and even other mammals) that a very wide range of animals might technically be capable of speech. So why are we the only ones?

Mind Over Mouth Matter

Since it clearly isn't the flexibility of their mouths that prevents our simian cousins from speaking, biologists had to go back to the drawing board. But to Fitch, the answer can be summed up in a short sentence: "If a human brain were in control, they could talk." Basically, the brains of macaques (and cats and horses and buffalos) are just not equipped to take fine muscle control over the lips, tongue, and vocal cords. In other words, the bad news is that your dog is never going to learn to talk to you. But the good news is, if you get Freaky Friday'd with your pet, you'll be able to tell somebody.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2017

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