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The function and mechanism of vocal accommodation in humans and other primates

Ruch, H. , Zürcher, Y. and Burkart, J. M. (2018), The function and mechanism of vocal accommodation in humans and other primates. Biol Rev, 93: 996-1013. doi:10.1111/brv.12382

Framework for studying vocal accommodation, informed by the psycholinguist/cognitive psychologist Interactive Alignment Model (IAM) and socio‐psychological Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT). IAM makes a strong assumption at the proximate level, i.e. that accommodation is the result of an automatic perception–production link. CAT makes a strong assumption at the ultimate level, i.e. that accommodation serves a strategic communication function. References in italics refer to examples from non‐human primates.

The study of non‐human animals, in particular primates, can provide essential insights into language evolution. A critical element of language is vocal production learning, i.e. learning how to produce calls. In contrast to other lineages such as songbirds, vocal production learning of completely new signals is strikingly rare in non‐human primates. An increasing body of research, however, suggests that various species of non‐human primates engage in vocal accommodation and adjust the structure of their calls in response to environmental noise or conspecific vocalizations. To date it is unclear what role vocal accommodation may have played in language evolution, in particular because it summarizes a variety of heterogeneous phenomena which are potentially achieved by different mechanisms. In contrast to non‐human primates, accommodation research in humans has a long tradition in psychology and linguistics. Based on theoretical models from these research traditions, we provide a new framework which allows comparing instances of accommodation across species, and studying them according to their underlying mechanism and ultimate biological function. We found that at the mechanistic level, many cases of accommodation can be explained with an automatic perception–production link, but some instances arguably require higher levels of vocal control. Functionally, both human and non‐human primates use social accommodation to signal social closeness or social distance to a partner or social group. Together, this indicates that not only some vocal control, but also the communicative function of vocal accommodation to signal social closeness and distance must have evolved prior to the emergence of language, rather than being the result of it. Vocal accommodation as found in other primates has thus endowed our ancestors with pre‐adaptations that may have paved the way for language evolution.