PI: Kim Oller
Co-PI: Ulrike Griebel

How did human language come to exist, and how can observations of human infant development inform the establishment of a workable theory of language evolution?

Modern evolutionary biology is guided by the theoretical innovations of "evo-devo" or evolutionary developmental biology, which has primarily addressed mechanisms of physical development (for example of body plans) that can be elucidated only when evolution and development are jointly considered. We study vocal and vocal communicative development in human infants, along with communication in a variety of other species (e.g., canines, the Caribbean reef squid, non-human primates) in order to establish a theoretical model of language with an evo-devo flavor. The model suggests that stages of vocal development even in the first six months of life reveal that infants command requirements of human language that must have been evolved by ancient hominins long before modern language existed. Of key interest is the apparent fact that no other primate ever commands key vocal skills that are seen in human infants by 3-6 months of age. We reason that these skills must have emerged in human evolution at or shortly after the split of humans from the lines that led to Chimpanzees and Bonobos.

Much of our work is conducted in collaboration with and partly supported financially by the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Austria.


  • Chair of Excellence. Funding Agency: Plough Foundation.
  • Funding Agency: Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Altenberg, Austria.


  • Griebel, U., Pepperberg, I. M., & Oller, D. K. (2016). Developmental plasticity and language: A comparative perspective. In New Frontiers in Language Evolution and Development Edited by: Wayne D. Gray. Topics in Cognitive Science (topiCS), 8(2), 435-445. NIHMSID 758688.
  • Oller, D. K., Griebel, U., & Warlaumont, A. S. (2016). Vocal development as a guide to modeling the evolution of language. In New Frontiers in Language Evolution and Development Edited by: Wayne D. Gray. Topics in Cognitive Science (topiCS), 8(2) 382-392. NIHMSID 756784.
  • Oller, D. K., Dale, R., & Griebel, U. (2016). New Frontiers in Language Evolution and Development: the Editors' Introduction. In New Frontiers in Language Evolution and Development Edited by: Wayne D. Gray. Topics in Cognitive Science (topiCS), 8(2), 353-360. NIHMSID 760703.
  • Tchernichovski, O. & Oller, D. K. (2016). Vocal development: How marmoset infants express their feelings. Dispatch for Current Biology. 26, R408–R431, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.063 .
  • Griebel, U., & Oller, D. K. (2014). Origins of language in a comparative perspective. In P. J. Lafreniere & G. Weisfeld (Eds.), Evolutionary Science of Human Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Linus Learning, Rokokoma, NY. 257-280.
  • Oller, D. K. (2014). Phonation takes precedence over articulation in development as well as evolution of language. Commentary on "Hermann Ackermann, Steffen R. Hage and Wolfram Ziegler (2014). Brain mechanisms of acoustic communication in humans and nonhuman primates: An evolutionary perspective. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, pp 529-546 doi:10.1017/S0140525X13003099 Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 37, 567-568. NIHMSID: 555866. doi:10.1017/S0140525X13004159. (Peer-reviewed article) PMC4270269.
  • Oller, D. K. & Griebel, U. (2014). On Quantitative Comparative Research in Communication and Language Evolution. Biological Theory, 9, 2, 296-308. doi: 10.1007/s13752-014-0186-7. NIHMSID #613148. PMCID: PMC4179202 (Peer-reviewed article).
  • Griebel, U. and Oller, D. K. (2012). "Vocabulary learning in a Yorkshire terrier: Slow mapping of spoken words. PLoS ONE, 7, 1, 1-10, e30182.
  • Griebel, U. & Oller, D. K. (2008). Evolutionary forces favoring contextual flexibility. In Oller, D.K. and Griebel, U. (editors) Evolution of Communicative Flexibility: Complexity, Creativity, and Adaptability in Human and Animal Communication, MIT Press pp. 9-40.


  • Oller, D. K. & Griebel, U. (2015). Vocal development in the human infant and in our closest primate relatives. Paper for symposium, entitled The evolution of human vocal behavior: Comparative, cultural, developmental, and neuroscience perspectives, organized by Greg Bryant of UCLA, for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, at the Univ. of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
  • Oller, D. K. (2015). Infant Vocal Development and the Speech/Language Capacity. Invited lecture for the University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
  • Oller, D. K., Griebel, U. (2014, July). Human vocal development and animal communication in an evodevo approach to language. Pan European conference on evolutionary developmental biology (Euro EvoDevo), Vienna, Austria.
  • Oller, D. K. (2014). Emergence of foundations for language. Bold Aspirations Lecture for the University of Kansas. Lawrence, KA.
  • Oller, D. K. & Griebel, U. (2013). Volubility in humans and non-humans: A projected project on canine vocal communication. Colloquium for the Wolf Science Center, Ernstbrunn, Austria.
  • Oller, D.K. (2013). How early vocal development provides perspective on the evolution of language: Functional flexibility in vocal communication as a foundational principle. Invited presentation of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistic Research, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
  • Oller, D. K. (2013). Infrastructure for vocal development and evolution. Invited presentation for Hunter College, CUNY, Laboratory of Vocal Learning, New York, NY.