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Neanderthal Language

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Introduction.Edit

Recent studies suggest that the vocal apparatus of Neanderthal man was physiologically similar to that of a newborn Homo sapiens baby. What follows is a proposal on how a Neanderthal language – or more accurately, proto-language – might have functioned.

Any information that my fellow conlangers may have on the speech capacity of the Neanderthals -- especially information contrary to the notes contained within this page -- would be extremely beneficial for me in my effort to create an anatomically accurate, if obviously not historically accurate, depiction of the Neanderthal language.

Phonology.Edit

Vowels.Edit

Neanderthals were unlikely to be able to distinguish vowels quantitatively. That is, they probably could not distinguish features like [+/- High] and [+/- Back] due to limitations in their laryngeal physiology that prevented them from articulating their tongues well enough to produce such a distinction.

That is not to say that they were only capable of one vowel sound. There seems to be no reason to suspect that Neanderthals lacked the capability to distinguish [+/- Round], since their lips, like the lips of all Great Apes, were fully articulating.

Moreover, the Neanderthal man was most likely able to distinguish features of pitch. Even a fetus in the womb can observe high versus low pitch distinctions, and so can all primates.

The vowel phonology proposed for Neanderthal man incorporates pitch and roundedness distinction, but disregards Homo sapiens-style positional distinctions. In the discussion below, it will be assumed that the Neanderthal man did not use the complex tones found in many of our languages, but only a simple high versus medium versus low distinction.

Table 1. Neanderthal Vowels

Spread Vowels

Round Vowels

High

é

ó

Medium

e

o

Low

è

ò

Please note that while the letters ‘e’ and ‘o’ are used to represent these sounds, they are central sounds, essentially similar to Homo sapiens’ [ə] pronounced with spread or rounded lips, respectively.

Consonants.Edit

Less is known about the Neanderthal man’s ability to produce a range of consonantal sounds. However, inferences may be made on the basis of his oral anatomy.

Place of Articulation.Edit

Neanderthal man was most likely capable of smacking his lips in order to produce a labial sound, so it shall be assumed that labial articulations were possible. Within the oral cavity, it’s very hard to determine the exact capabilities of his tongue to articulate against different areas of his palate. However, in the analysis below it will be assumed that he was capable of producing a dental-alveolar sound with the tip or the blade of his tongue and a velar sound with his dorsum. The ability to articulate with the root of his tongue or with his less-evolved glottis was probably very limited.

Manner of Articulation.Edit

Neanderthal man relied most heavily on plosives, which he distinguished by voice and aspiration. He could also make certain fricative sounds, and could combine these with plosives to form affricates. However, he was incapable of producing nasal stops or approximates. Voicing distinctions for fricatives, and therefore for affricates, were determined based on the environment rather than on phonological factors.

Table 2. Neanderthal Consonants

Bilabial

Dental-Alveolar

Velar

Voiceless plosives

p, ph

t, th

k, kh

Voiced plosives

b, bh

d, dh

g, gh

Fricatives

ɸ~β (f)

s~z (s)

x~ɣ (x)

Affricates

pɸ, bβ (pf, bf)

ts, dz (ts, ds)

kx, gɣ (kx, gx)

Phonotactics.Edit

Neanderthal man was only capable of very simple syllables, in the following form:

(C1) V (C2)

A nucleic vowel was mandatory. C1 could be any consonant (21 in total, or 22 including 0, the null onset). C2 was limited to unaspirated plosives and voiceless fricatives (p, b, t, d, k, g, f, s and x, 9 in total, or 10 including 0).

Grammar.Edit

Due to limitations on the mental capacity of the Neanderthal man, he could only use very basic isolating grammar. His largest class of words was nouns, with a smaller set of verbs. Modifiers were expressed as verbs. The closed-class vocabulary was also very limited, consisting mostly of prepositions of direction that were used with verbs.

Every root is monosyllabic in Neanderthal language, which greatly limited their capability to distinguish between a large number of distinct words. The phonology described above allows for only 1,320 possible syllables, and many of these went unused. However, complex meanings could be achieved with the use of compound words. Compounds were almost exclusively of the substantive class, and generally were formed of roots of that same class.

The basic word order is SV(O).

Neanderthal man was incapable of producing relative clauses, but could achieve a similar effect by stringing together a series of phrases.

Phe fós. Phe dè ko bfèxox.

Blood be.red. Blood falls from head-bone.

“The red blood that poured from his skull.”


Vocabulary.Edit

Neanderthal, English, Part, Notes

be, grab, verb

bfè, head, noun

--> bfèxox, skull, noun, head.bone

--> bfèdzo, elder/leader, noun, head.father

bhét, daughter, noun

--> bhétbekxé, become a woman, verb, daughter.grab.woman

dè, to fall, verb

dhok, man, noun

dzo, father, noun

fós, to be red, verb

fèt, son, noun

--> fètbedhok, become a man, verb, son.grab.man

ghe, build, verb

gxe, eat, verb

gxòk, Neanderthal, noun

ko, from, prep

ke, to/into, prep

khè, thing, noun

--> khèghe, building, noun, thing.build

--> khègxe, food, noun, thing.eat

kxé, mother, noun

so, woman, noun

--> sobetsè, rape, verb, woman.grab.have-sex

tèk, meat, noun

tof, love, noun/verb

--> tofbe, to court, verb, love.grab

tsè, (to have) sex, noun/verb

tsò, large animal, noun, usually deer, boar or other game

pép, child, noun

pfo, Homo sapiens, noun

phe, blood, noun

xef, edible plant, noun

xé, to be green, verb

xox, bone, noun

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