Primate vocal communication is very different from human language. Differences are most pronounced in call production. Differences in production have been overemphasized, however, and distracted attention from the information that primates acquire when they hear vocalizations. In perception and cognition, continuities with language are more apparent. We suggest that natural selection has favored nonhuman primates who, upon hearing vocalizations, form mental representations of other individuals, their relationships, and their motives. This social knowledge constitutes a discrete, combinatorial system that shares several (...) features with language. It is probably a general primate characteristic whose appearance pre-dates the evolution of spoken language in our hominid ancestors. The prior evolution of social cognition created individuals who were preadapted to develop language. Several features thought to be unique to language—like discrete combinatorics and the encoding of propositional information—were not introduced by language. They arose, instead, because understanding social life and predicting others’ behavior requires a particular style of thinking. (shrink)
Among monkeys and apes, both the recognition and classification of individuals and the recognition and classification of vocalizations constitute discrete combinatorial systems. One system maps onto the other, suggesting that during human evolution kinship classifications and language shared a common cognitive precursor.
To conclude that language evolved from vocalizations, through gestures, then back to vocalizations again, one must first reject the simpler hypothesis that language evolved from prelinguistic vocalizations. There is no reason to do so. Many studies – not cited by Arbib – document continuities in behavior, perception, cognition, and neurophysiology between human speech and primate vocal communication.