Behavioral and Brain Sciences

The frame/content theory of evolution of speech production

Peter F. MacNeilage a1
a1 Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712 [email protected]


The species-specific organizational property of speech is a continual mouth open-close alternation, the two phases of which are subject to continual articulatory modulation. The cycle constitutes the syllable, and the open and closed phases are segments – vowels and consonants, respectively. The fact that segmental serial ordering errors in normal adults obey syllable structure constraints suggests that syllabic “frames” and segmental “content” elements are separately controlled in the speech production process. The frames may derive from cycles of mandibular oscillation present in humans from babbling onset, which are responsible for the open-close alternation. These communication- related frames perhaps first evolved when the ingestion-related cyclicities of mandibular oscillation (associated with mastication [chewing] sucking and licking) took on communicative significance as lipsmacks, tonguesmacks, and teeth chatters – displays that are prominent in many nonhuman primates. The new role of Broca's area and its surround in human vocal communication may have derived from its evolutionary history as the main cortical center for the control of ingestive processes. The frame and content components of speech may have subsequently evolved separate realizations within two general purpose primate motor control systems: (1) a motivation-related medial “intrinsic” system, including anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area, for self-generated behavior, formerly responsible for ancestral vocalization control and now also responsible for frames, and (2) a lateral “extrinsic” system, including Broca's area and surround, and Wernicke's area, specialized for response to external input (and therefore the emergent vocal learning capacity) and more responsible for content.

Key Words: Broca's aphasia; chewing; consonants; lipsmacks; speech evolution syllables; supplementary motor area; vowels; Wernicke's aphasia.