Will Chimpanzees Ever Speak?

Chimpanzees are known for being the closest relatives to humans genetically, sharing over 98% of our DNA. Though, it doesn’t take a biologist to figure out some of the major differences between us and our genetic cousins. However, one question that comes up a lot regarding all animals is the difference in our ability to communicate through speech. Why is it that chimpanzees, as well as other great apes, who so closely resemble our DNA, can’t perform one of the simplest staples of human interaction?

Contrary to some beliefs, the issue is not one that has to do with the brain. At least not entirely. Chimpanzees, as well as other apes, have proven their capability to understand language on a basic level through the use of sign language. It’s hard to say whether or not they have the ability to think in terms of grammar, because within their current “language,” apes tend to only speak about the present. This means that we don’t know if they haven’t developed a form of past and future tense due to actual mental restrictions, or simply the lack of the need to. Regardless of their brain’s capacity to understand grammar and complex language, the use of sign language still proves that the speech barrier between humans and apes does not have to do with the genetic ability to learn some kind of language, simple as one may be, but rather comes down to more physical reasons.

Physically speaking, apes, such as chimpanzees, have their vocal chords located higher in their throat than humans. Additionally, as mentioned in a special on NPR which quotes Dr. Philip Lieberman, one of the reasons our necks got longer was the downward movement of our tongues over time, which also brought the larynx down with it. With this space in our mouth and the shape of our tongues, we have the ability to move them up and down, as well as forward and backward, contrary to chimpanzees, whose tongue movement is mostly in-out.

While many of the details of these reasons are still being researched, unless the need arises for natural selection and evolution among the great apes to allow for changes in their tongues and vocal structures, it can be assumed that we won’t be hearing any chimpanzees speaking full sentences any time soon. However, if studies continue down the path of developing complex sign language between us and our fellow great apes, we could see any number of breakthroughs in understanding the actual mental capacity of these creatures, and whether or not they posses the ability to think beyond the present tense.


12 thoughts on “Will Chimpanzees Ever Speak?

  1. Cassandra N Kearns

    Interesting topic! I enjoyed reading your blog, but I felt there had to be a more scientific reason as to why these animals do not communicate in our same way, even though we are composed of 98% of the same DNA. I thought about dolphins, which are mammals just like humans and chimpanzees. Each animal, even humans, have different types of communication styles and languages. For example, Chimpanzees use sign language, humans use different voice languages, and even dolphins use different sounds to communicate. Through this link, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/why-can-t-chimps-speak-111961, I found that a gene, FOX2, could be linked directly to the humans ability to speak, and other mammals inabilities to speak. It might be worth while for you to read more about the genetic side of this question.

  2. Christopher Ronkainen

    What an interesting topic choice! I would have never even considered the possibility of Chimpanzees possibly being able to speak the way we do until reading this. To be honest, it truly blows my mind to think that they can understand our usage of sign language! Since that aspect of your post interested me the most I made sure to look into it more. I came across this cool post that may interest you.

  3. Mairead Donnard

    This is such a fascinating topic to write about! I have always wondered why an animal so incredibly similar to human beings in DNA lacked the ability to speak at all. The point in which you discussed the tongue movements and the evolution that human beings underwent made this clear to me. Here is an article that you might find interesting that reminds me of your article: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150216-can-any-animals-talk-like-humans
    It talks about the fact that some animals can mimic human speech but only a handful can meaningfully communicate. Other animals show just how much humans have evolved.

    1. Brian Cunningham Post author

      Yeah, there’s definitely a pretty big difference between mimicking and understanding communication, but the ability to mimic us at the right times (for example, a parrot saying something in response to a question) may show that there is potential there for animals to have conversations to the capacity of whatever they can see as “meaningful”. To reiterate what I said in my post, because current studies show that apes only think in the present, even if they were able to comprehend and communicate “meaningfully”, would they? That’s a place where I’d imagine the gene for ABILITY to speak is very different from the gene that gives them exigence to.

  4. Molly Mccarthy Tompson

    This is extremely interesting, and it’s a shame that we cannot go into the future to find out if this will happen any time soon. If chimpanzees could talk or more effectively communicate with humans, we would most definitely have scientific breakthroughs about these animals (and possibly many more!) This reminded me of a fact I heard once (http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/how-many-words-do-dogs-know/) that dogs are capable of learning over 150 words! It is interesting that dogs are able to learn, understand, remember and react to words, but they are unable to physically speak them. This article http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661304002451 describes a study conducted about word-learning in dogs.

  5. Daniele Patrice Loney

    I think this was a very interesting topic to address. I don’t necessarily think that communicating with chimpanzees in a more advanced manner specifically is an imperative problem to solve, but I think that if it was figured out, it would lead us to a pool of attainable knowledge that humans have never tapped into before. If scientists discovered a way to talk with chimps and expand on their vocal abilities, that proves that with extra work and care, other animals would be able to do just the same thing.
    This could be applied to society in many ways. For example, maybe service dogs could be the next species to experiment with. If they could communicate with their owner and vise versa in a more precise manner, their capabilities as a worker could be expanded in great ways.
    Hopefully this is an area of science that continues to grow. Cool things can come from it. Great blog topic!

  6. Jason Williams


    This article brought up an interesting point about the innate characteristics shared. It is quite fascinating that despite sharing so many things with us as a species, chimpanzees and the great ape family are yet so far apart in other categories.

    The idea of animal speech always makes me think of the parrot’s ability for imitation. As it’s common to show in media and society, parrots above most any other bird have an uncanny ability for repetition of a heard sound. I was interesting to find out that parrots are actually considered vocal learners, meaning that they process and grasp information through hearing and repeating. These intelligent birds can distinguish a scenario and mimic sounds to blend in. While in captivity, this trait seems nothing more than a fun trick and after awhile, a slight annoyance, the parrot’s ability to mimic is very useful for survival and fitting in with a flock.

    For more info, here’s the source: Audubon

    1. Michael Robert Szawaluk


      I knew that chimps share 98% of human DNA. I believe we talked about it in a class in high school. The thought of them ever being able to talk never crossed my mind. The information you shared about how a chimpanzee’s vocal cords are located higher in their throats was very interesting. I would not have thought that the reason they are unable to speak is due to anatomy. I think incorporating evolution into this post more would have made it more interesting to read. Because we, as humans, are so similar to chimps and they are unable to perform what we think is a simple task, evolution most likely the culprit. I think researchers and scientists should continue to do studies on mental capacities of animals to see if any advances can be made in the future. If you are interested I found a study that links evolution to human capacity for language. Check it out here: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/why-can-t-chimps-speak-111961.

  7. Julia R Martini

    This post was cute! I always knew that chimpanzee had almost identical DNA to humans but I never thought about the science behind it. I just always knew DNA is DNA so why question it. This really highlighted evidence that can concluded other things about chimpanzees like if they ever will be able to speak sentences.
    Also, the science behind our vocal chords is very interesting as well. You smoothly transitioned to other topics to talk about which was also very nice. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this. It also got me to question how much our DNA differs from other mammals like us. https://www.koshland-science-museum.org/sites/all/exhibits/exhibitdna/intro03.jsp This website really helped me distinguish the difference and was interesting to read.

  8. Jeremy Perdomo

    Dear Brian,

    I was genuinely surprised by the very first piece of data that you introduced in your blog; human and chimpanzees share 98 percent of the same DNA! No wonder they are our closest relatives. Also, you mention that apes only have the capabilities of communicating thoughts about the present, or so scientists believe. When you put it that way, it shocks me because I never really thought that monkeys even had the brain capabilities to communicate at the same level as humans at all. Whats more is that you claim that if the need arises, these chimpanzees will acquire the capability to speak the same language we do; this is incredible! Also, this reminds me a little of the movie Planet of the Apes, which kind of scares me. I wonder if monkeys would ever be able to take over our world…?

    Anyways, regarding your article, I loved the topic of it, so, naturally, I am going to be a little bit biased towards it. I thought you got straight to the point, excellently using your research to support you claims. But as I was reading, I thought of maybe other animals that are extremely intelligent that we just don’t think about, and I found plenty of animals that deserve some credit! Here is the link if you want to be amazed:


  9. Natalie Elizabeth Burns

    This article immediately caught my eye because I’ve never thought about this. However, now that you have posed the question, it is completely valid to ask. I had some questions regarding this post such as: Over time, will evolution “fix” the location of their voice boxes so that they can talk? Evolution clearly fixed our issues with that because we evolved from them. Also, your point about thinking is past versus present versus future tense is very interesting. Again, I’ve never taken the time to think about that, but now that I do I find it puzzling. The thought that maybe these animals have no idea what is in store for them, but in our lives all we seem to do is think of the future. Very interesting blog post.

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