A large part of what makes human communication so advanced when compared to other animals is our mastery of our voices. Besides body language, it is the earliest form of communication we learn. With just a few years of practice, we become experts, and this amazing skill simply becomes part of everyday life. Most people soon forget it is a skill at all. But scientists have not forgotten, and many have made surprising discoveries about the human voice. From what it shares with fish to its influence on architecture, here are ten very strange facts about human voices.
10 Humans Inherited Vocal Cords from Fish
According to evolutionary scientists, every animal with a voice has prehistoric fish to thank. This is because, around 530 million years ago, a lucky landlocked fish was born with a mutation that let it draw oxygen from the air. More importantly, it was able to reproduce and pass this trait on.
Its offspring evolved over thousands of years into lungfish, which possess, as well as lungs, a valve that stops water from getting into their respiratory system. Thousands more years later, this valve remained when humans evolved and became the vocal cords. The sound of a voice is made when air pushed up from the lungs makes parts of this valve vibrate against each other.
9 Early Human Speech Might Have Sounded Like Beatboxing
How can scientists have any idea what our ancestors’ speech sounded like? While they cannot know for certain, they can make educated guesses by observing how other great apes communicate. For example, researchers learned that orangutans share an advanced vocal skill with humans: the ability to make two vocal sounds at the same time. In hostile situations, male orangutans from Borneo make noises which scientists call “chomps” and “grumbles.” The researchers found that a male could make both sounds at the same time, like how a human beatboxer can imitate drums and an instrument.
To make sure this was a biological trait and not a quirk of the orangutans in Borneo, scientists also studied orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia. There, female orangutans were seen making “kiss squeak” and “rolling call” sounds at the same time. The noises warned other orangutans of predators. This shows that other great apes can make two vocal sounds together, which suggests that humanity’s ancestors could, too. It could even mean that the first humans communicated using beatbox-like sounds.
8 The Voices of the Dead Can Be Recreated
In 2020, an ancient Egyptian mummy spoke for the first time in thousands of years. Well, really, he groaned. And, no, he had not turned into a zombie. The 3,000-year-old Egyptian priest, Nesyamun, had, in fact, had his voice artificially reconstructed. Scientists used CT scans of his vocal tract to create a 3D-printed copy of it. They then linked this to a loudspeaker and sent an electronic signal that mimicked the output of a human larynx through it.
The result was a single vowel sound that the researchers claim is what people would hear if Nesyamun’s larynx came back to life. The study points to a possible future where people can hear ancient history rather than simply see it in the form of ruins and artifacts. However, the software involved in recreating such old voices needs improvement.
Sounds produced by the vocal tract are changed by factors such as its position and the amount of flesh that remains. In Nesyamun’s case, he had been lying down for 3,000 years, and very little flesh remained. His tongue was almost entirely gone. The sound of his reconstructed voice, while a good start, is still far from what the Egyptians listening to his songs and speeches would have heard.
7 Animals Fear Our Voices More Than Lions
According to a 2023 study, animals at South Africa’s Kruger National Park are more scared of human voices than the sound of lions. Antelopes, elephants, giraffes, leopards, and warthogs were played recordings of the sounds, which included humans speaking in local languages. About 95% of the animals fled from the human voices. They were less concerned about the lion sounds, and some elephants even tried to fight the imaginary predator.
These results match other reports from around the world, which show that animals are more scared of people than other animals. This presents a challenge for wildlife tourism because tourists are likely to scare away the animals they want to see. Other studies suggest that fear alone can shrink animal populations, so people need to find ways to reduce the animals’ fear. They could also use it to protect vulnerable species. One suggestion that is being tested is using human sounds to keep rhinos away from areas where poachers like to hunt.
6 Several Animals Can Imitate Our Speech
Everybody knows that parrots and some other birds can copy what people say. While they might be the best at it, they are far from the only animals who are able to mimic human speech. In 1984, a beluga whale called Noc surprised researchers by making noises that sounded like human speech. Rocky, a popular ape at the Indianapolis Zoo, copied his keepers’ speech in return for food. And an elephant called Koshik cleverly put his trunk trunk in his mouth to recreate human sounds.
In 2018, scientists discovered orcas can copy human words, too. However, there is no evidence they can understand what they are saying. A 14-year-old orca from France called Wikie was able to repeat simple words such as “hello,” “Amy,” “ah-ha,” “one, two,” and “bye-bye” on command. She also learned to copy some new orca sounds she had never heard before. This suggests orcas learn sounds by copying them, which might help to explain a phenomenon wild orca communication shares with human speech: regional dialects.
5 Babies Can Hear Emotion at Only Three Months Old
In 2011, scientists were able to show that brain areas specialize from a very early stage in human development. They did this by performing fMRI scans of sleeping babies who listened to emotional sounds, such as laughing and crying. When the babies heard a human voice, their scans showed the same brain area was activated as in adults. That area is called the temporal cortex, and it is involved in many of humanity’s most advanced skills, including semantic processing and language.
Scientists also found that the babies’ brains could tell the difference between sad and happy sounds, with the former provoking a strong reaction from the limbic region of their brains. Knowing when people learn to hear emotion could help researchers understand why conditions such as autism develop.
4 The Way People Speak to Babies Is Universal
Looking into the adorable but uncomprehending face of a baby, most people speak in a happy, high-pitched voice. Often, it leaps around in tone, almost like a song. It seems so natural to do this that most people have probably never questioned whether other cultures share this strange behavior. But scientists have found evidence that they do. This way of speaking even has its own scientific acronym, IDS, which stands for infant-directed speech (and research says they can tell when it is not truly “infant-directed” when someone is speaking that way while no baby is present).
It appears to be used instinctively, especially by mothers, to help babies learn their language. In some languages, IDS emphasizes vowel sounds, so babies find it easier to tell the difference between words. It also expresses emotion more strongly. Within three months, babies can already understand emotions from hearing someone’s voice. Still, voices play an important role in their development even earlier than that. As soon as they are born, they display a preference for their mother’s voice and language, having heard enough of it while in the womb to be able to distinguish it from others.
3 Valuable Violins Mimic the Human Voice
When people hear the name Stradivarius, they might think about centuries-old violins valued in the millions of dollars. They also might wonder whether anything can sound so good as to be worth such an obscene sum. Clearly, enough people think so to have kept the instruments in pristine condition for so long. But why do they sound so wonderful?
Scientists say it is because the violins mimic the qualities of human voices. The tones produced by Stradivarius violin sounds are similar to those made in the vocal tracts of high-pitched singers, such as tenors and contraltos. This was discovered by having a violinist play 15 antique instruments and then using speech analysis software to compare the sound with singers’ voices.
The results support the opinion of the composer Francesco Geminiani. More than two hundred years ago, he wrote that the tone of a great violin performance should rival the most beautiful human voice. Early violin makers appear to have agreed. In the past, violins often accompanied singers. Mimicking singing voices might have allowed the instrument to blend into the music more smoothly.
2 Voices Have Influenced Architecture for Thousands of Years
Violins were not the only objects influenced by the acoustic qualities of human voices. For thousands of years, architects have designed buildings that can amplify, carry, and change people’s voices. One example is the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. Researchers found that the city’s public squares and temples project the human voice amazingly well. The buildings there date from around AD 600AD, and there were even special projection rooms from where ancient priests might have sung or chanted for citizens to hear. The buildings acted like a giant PA system.
But there are even earlier examples. A 3,000-year-old underground maze in Peru can reportedly change people’s voices and echo from all directions at once. Experts believe the maze might have been designed to confuse and disorient the people inside it. In Europe, such techniques have been used to enhance people’s spiritual experiences. An underground temple in Malta, the 5,000-year-old Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, has a room that creates the skin-tingling effect of multiple voices sounding in unison when someone’s voice hits a frequency of 110Hz.
1 Human Voices Can Shatter Glass (in Theory)
It is not impossible for people to shatter glass with their voices, but the cartoons make it look so easy. It is not simply a case of singing at such a high pitch. But the pitch is crucial. For the glass to break, a person must sing at a pitch that matches the glass’s natural resonant frequency—the frequency that causes it to vibrate most efficiently. If the vibrations are strong enough, it will break itself apart. The note is believed to be around an octave above middle C but can vary.
Even an untrained singer can reach this relatively easily, but the trick is to make the vibrations strong enough, and this means being loud. The volume is crucial, and most people simply will not be loud enough. Not even trained singers. One who did manage it for the TV show Mythbusters sang almost as loud as a jackhammer. And he only smashed one glass out of 12 that he attempted to break. For those who like to sing around the house, fear not. Your windows and mirrors are probably safe, no matter how good or bad your voice is.