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Vocal functional flexibility: what it is and why it matters

Derry, T; Clay, Z; Dahl, CD; Zuberbühler, J; Davila-Ross, M; Dezecache, G

Vocal functional flexibility: what it is and why it matters Thumbnail


T Derry

CD Dahl

J Zuberbühler

M Davila-Ross

G Dezecache


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.


Derry, T., Clay, Z., Dahl, C., Zuberbühler, J., Davila-Ross, M., & Dezecache, G. (2022). Vocal functional flexibility: what it is and why it matters. Animal Behaviour, 186, 93-100.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 8, 2021
Online Publication Date Mar 9, 2022
Publication Date 2022-04
Deposit Date Mar 16, 2022
Publicly Available Date Jul 15, 2022
Journal Animal Behaviour
Print ISSN 0003-3472
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 186
Pages 93-100


Published Journal Article (364 Kb)

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Copyright 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 (

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