Re: Neanderthals and speech

Todd Sieling (
Sun, 27 Nov 1994 12:34:26 GMT

In article <3b30ba$>,
Jacques Guy <> wrote:
>Indeed, I have seen this argument time and again. But it amounts to nonsense
>when you think carefully about it. Firstly, why should have Neanderthals
>died out from lack of language? Innumerable animal species lack language.
>Have *they* died out? So this argument does not hold water. Second, what
>do we really know about Neanderthals' speech abilities? What could we say
Hi, Jacques; I was just reading your posts on sci.lang. . .
The post I made about the theory of language being a factor in the
death of the N'thals was made in the context of whether or not they had just
up and died or if they had been assimilated. I posted the theory as a
posible argument against assimilation, not as a cause of their demise. Like I
said, they obviously got along well, with or without a developed language.

>of the speech-mimicking abilities of parrots and mynahs if all we had
>were bones? Precious nothing I guess. Third, the point made by Lieberman
>and Crelin is that Neanderthals' vocal tract (as they reconstruct it --
>and let us grant that their reconstruction is correct and accurate in
>all details), that their vocal tract, then, did not allow them to utter
>"stable" vowels, by which they mean the three cardinal vowels [a], [i],
>[u]. So what? Any other vowels would do very nicely, and even, it is
>quite possible to have a language without vowels at all -- just consonants
>-- or just one single vowel phoneme taking on just about any phonetic
>realization, conditioned by the consonantal environment.
I'm sure such a language is possible. I think the lowest number of
phonemes is 14 (or thereabouts).

>And, even if we grant that "they could not learn the same language"
>(as Cro-Magnons) it does not follow that communication and cultural
>intercourse between the two species would have been impossible.
>Firstly, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons may have developed a lingua
>franca making use only of the sounds which both could utter. Secondly,
>they might have developed a common sign language, just like the
>American Indians.
That lingua franca, though, might have been severely limited in expressive
power if there was no solid linguistic "apparatus" behind it, ie: if Neander
brains weren't equipped with the language abilities ours are, there would be
a pretty serious gulf between the two groups. The range of potential grammars
might have even been different for the two groups, who knows?
I want to point out that I don't stand on any particular ground in
the assimilation/competition debate, I was just offering a possible factor
in their interaction.