Saturday science subject: Neanderthal speech

— 12:31 PM on April 19, 2008

Our understanding of Neanderthals has changed considerably over the past few decades. While they were once thought to be highly primitive ancestors of modern humans lacking the ability to speak, current research suggests Neanderthals were in fact a different species (albeit with a common ancestor) that shared many of the qualities of Homo Sapiens—including speech, building tools, mastering fire, skinning animals, and burying their dead.

Since Neanderthals were quite anatomically different from modern humans, though, how exactly did they speak? As the New Scientist reports, Florida Atlantic University anthropologist Robert McCarthy has set out to answer that question. Using a reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tract based on 50,000-year-old fossils, McCarthy and his team have succeeded in simulating how a Neanderthal might have sounded when saying "E" (or /iː/, for those versed in the International Phonetic Alphabet).

The result can be downloaded in WAVE format here, while a simulation of a modern human producing the same sound can be downloaded here for comparison. According to McCarthy's findings, Neanderthals' speech was missing "quantal vowel" sounds, so Neanderthals wouldn't have been able to differentiate between the vowel sounds in "beat" and "bit." McCarthy says the difference is subtle but would have nonetheless "limited Neanderthal speech." McCarthy tells the New Scientist he plans to synthesize a complete Neanderthal sentence.

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