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Homo sapiens sapiens - so good they named us twice

What communication means to us as a species.

What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom? Are we really all that special?

We are the only living members of the genus Homo. We share 98.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos. We can be stubborn like oxen and cunning like foxes (foxen?), eat like pigs and drink like fish. But there is something that we can do in a highly sophisticated manner far beyond the dreams of any parrot, puppy or porcupine. We can talk to each other. Let's look at how sophisticated and complex this can get.

Using Pinyin romanisation of Mandarin Chinese as one example. There are 840 possible distinguishable sounds, each of these can have up to five tones, which gives us 4,200 unique words. (In practice, fewer than half of these words are actually used in the language.) Most words in modern Mandarin are compounds of two of these words, so there are say 2,000×2,000 = 4 million possible unique words which are then strung together to make sentences.

And that is just one language.

What's the reason even our closest relatives cannot make the sounds that we can? The presence and precise position of a U shaped bone called the hyoid bone. This and our big brains have afforded us the luxury of language. Granted, some of our species would do well to say a little less at times but if we had not developed our communication abilities over the course of our evolution where would we be now?

Speech and language gave rise to community, to ritual, to culture, and to collaboration. With the ability to describe and explain things to one another we could learn from our mistakes, plan for the future, share recommendations for restaurants (or where the nearest wild rabbit could be caught to drag back to the cave).

As a student of Anthropology and Psychology I was fascinated by evolution and the creatures from whom we can trace our origins. And now, as a human that helps other humans to hone their speaking skills, I like to consider just how fundamental speech is to our survival and success.

As babies we communicate (persistently!) before we know how to form words. As toddlers, we acquire language at a staggering rate and impressively high accuracy. But more than that, we not only instinctively communicate but we do so with a wide variety of tone, expression and emphasis. Anyone who needs evidence of this can borrow my young son on a whiny day!

Speaking is what we do to make our way through the world, safely and (hopefully) happily weaving among and connecting with other people. It is easy to point to many other ways that we communicate, in writing, visuals, passive aggressive tutting, interpretive dance when we feel like it. But speaking is, for most of us, quick, easy, doesn’t require much planning, space, time, and we can shape our words and tone to make sure our intention is conveyed properly. By text message we cannot hope to achieve this feat, no matter how many emojis we use. 🤯

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