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Monkeys Could Talk If They Had The Brains — But It Would Sound Creepy

We had no idea macaque monkeys could make humanlike sounds until we put them in an MRI scanner.
Posted at 1:59 PM, Dec 09, 2016

One of the big things that sets humans apart from other primates is spoken language. And new tests on macaques show the divide is even smaller than we thought: If they had the brainpower to use language, monkeys might be able to talk to us.

Researchers put macaque monkeys in an MRI scanner and measured the way they move their vocal tract. They built a computer model of a macaque from the measurements and ran human speech through it — the phrase, "Will you marry me?"

It sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it's easy to hear the words in there — and that's big news for biology. We didn't think monkeys had the anatomy to produce humanlike sounds in the first place.

SEE MORE: Capuchins Put A Monkey Wrench In Our Knowledge Of Early Human Tool Use

Of course, to a macaque, that proposal is still going to sound like noise, because their brains aren't wired to use and understand words like ours are.

Humans can organize their noises into language thanks to a region of the brain called Broca's area. Monkeys and great apes have a version of it, too. It's tied to their body language and communication the same way — it's just not as evolved as a human's.

Our advantage might have to do with our better command of gestures. Some researchers think all that time we spent waving our hands around while we made noise at each other helped language form.

And it suggests that given enough time, it could be something that other primates evolve, too.