Vol 7, Issue 2, May 2020

Segmental Units in Nonhuman Animal Vocalization as a Window into Meaning, Structure, and the Evolution of Language


Mann, D.C., & Hoeschele, M. (2020). Segmental units in nonhuman animal vocalization as a window into meaning, structure, and the evolution of language. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(2), 151-158. doi: https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


Human vocalizations are made up of meaningless units or segments that are combined to create meaningful words and phrases. Jackendoff (1999) hypothesized that the ability of humans to combine segments together is necessitated by the fact that we need to express an almost limitless amount of symbolic or referential information that could occur in a different time or space. So far, there is very little evidence for this symbolic and referentiality meaning in animal vocalizations. Furthermore, segments have also rarely been identified in the animal kingdom, with units divided by intakes of breaths taken as the most fundamental. However, if we are to take Jackendoff’s hypothesis seriously, we must do more detailed analyses at the level of the segment (subunits within a single breath) in animal vocalizations. Here we discuss the current status of animal vocal communication and its relation to Jackendoff’s hypothesis. We propose further research into segmental units in animal vocalizations is a key next step to determining the evolution of human vocal behavior.


Communication, Segments, Vocalizations, Meaning, Jackendoff’s hypothesis