Re: Neanderthals and speech

Jacques Guy (
28 Nov 1994 14:16:01 +1100 (Todd Sieling) writes:

>>[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).

In fact, the winner is Rotokas (spoken in Papua-New Guinea) with
6 consonants and 5 vowels. There is a close contenter, a South
American Indian language the name of which I forgot (it's a bit
like "Piranha") with 7 consonants and 3 vowels. *But* it has
tone, which Rotokas has not. So, it would be quite possible
to have a language with 6 consonants, one lone vowel, and
5 tones just as functional as Rotokas.

>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?

Precisely: we cannot know. Brain size is known not to correlate
well at all with intelligence -- and, likely, language ability,
so until we find a frozen Neanderthaler and thaw it back to
life, it is all speculation.

By the way, I have met languages without anything like our
relative clauses and what-elses, and their speakers did not
suffer from it. Language, I believe against many of my colleagues,
is exceedingly simple. It's just our theories which, being
inadequate, make them look complex. Just like the geocentric
model with circular orbits makes a mess of calculating