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Vocal functional flexibility: what it is and why it matters

Derry, T and Clay, Z and Dahl, CD and Zuberbühler, J and Davila-Ross, M and Dezecache, G (2022) 'Vocal functional flexibility: what it is and why it matters.', Animal Behaviour, 186 . pp. 93-100.


Human speech is marked by a signal–function decoupling, the capacity to produce sounds that can fulfil a variety of functions, in contrast to nonverbal vocalizations such as laughter, cries and screams, which are functionally more rigid. It has been argued that this decoupling provides an essential foundation for the emergence of language, in both ontogeny and phylogeny. Although language has a deep evolutionary history, whether this capacity for vocal functional flexibility also exists in the vocal systems of nonhuman animals has been much overlooked. Reasons are multiple. Here, we propose to diagnose the problems that have thus far hindered progress on understanding the evolutionary basis of functional flexibility, an issue which can shed broader light on the evolution of language. In particular, we aim to clarify what vocal functional flexibility is, why it matters, why we believe it should be investigated in nonhuman animals and how this could be best achieved.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NCND license (
Date accepted:08 December 2021
Date deposited:15 July 2022
Date of first online publication:09 March 2022
Date first made open access:15 July 2022

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