Hot on the heels of the oldest recording of a human voice, the voice of the long-extinct Neanderthal species may be heard again, after a gap of 30,000 years, courtesy of a computer synthesiser.
Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University, has produced a simulation of the Neanderthal ‘voice box’ from recent reconstructions of Neanderthal anatomy based on recent fossils finds in France. Neanderthal speech, says McCarthy, lacks the quantal vowels of its modern equivalent.
McCarthy and his team have so far only reconstructed the sound of the Neanderthal “E”, though he hopes to eventually simulate an entire sentence as spoken by a Neanderthal. The Neanderthal vowel is shown to be clearly distinct from a modern human voice, and McCarthy admits that the difference, though subtle, would have limited Neanderthal speech.
McCarthy explained quantal vowels as sounds that are recognizable as "a" or "o," for example, no matter how high- or low-pitched the speaker's voice is.
Neanderthals' inamility to produce these vowels would have severely limited their ability to form and understand a complex language, McCarthy argues, though Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, one of the world's leading experts on Neanderthals, disagrees.
"Ultimately what is important is not the anatomy of the mouth, but the neuronal control of it," Trinkaus tells New Scientist, pointing out that Neanderthal brains were larger than those of modern humans, and that both species shared a gene essential for language.
D: and what are quantal vowels?
... the three so-called quantal vowels of American English plus the neutral vowel. See Figure 8 for an idea of where the quantal vowels fit in the vowel triangle (which is really a quadrilateral).
/i:/ An high front vowel having a high-frequency concentration of energy above 1800 Hz.
/u/ A high back vowel having almost all its energy in the low frequencies below 1000 Hz.
/A/ A low vowel having a tight concentration of energy in the mid-range of 800 Hz to 1800 Hz.
D: now here is where it gets interesting. AUI forms the backbone of almost all human languages.
I'll check in a minute if that is true of PIE.
Here is my theory - if we see two parallel homonyms in PIE for common terms, and they each have distinctive vowel forms, then we might have circumstantial evidence of a neanderthal language.
I read "Hominids" by Sawyer. He hammed up the differences between man and caveman. I suppose it helped his story. Neanderthals don't have quite the same shoulder actuation to throw stuff like we do. There are some differences.
Everybody is fixated on whether we slept with cavegals. We keep looking for evidence of interaction in the genes.
I say look in the language.
. By 130,000 years ago, complete Neanderthal characteristics had appeared. These characteristics then disappeared in Asia by 50,000 years ago and in Europe by 30,000 years ago.
D: OK this is a problem. Beyond 5-10,000 years ago, we lose track of language evolution.
Too much static, I guess.
So my theory must wait for more data and/or better data processing techniques.
About half of the world’s present population speak some IE (Indo-European) language as their mother tongue. All these languages are held to derive ultimately from a single ancestor language, which we call “Proto-Indo-European”, or PIE for short.
D: I'd expect that neanderthals would rely more heavily on consonant clusters since many vowels are impossible for them.
The use on 'soft' consonants that have vowel-like properties such as liquids, semi-glides and nasals would be predicted by my theory.
D: PIE vowels.
Short vowels: *e, *o (and possibly *a).
Long vowels: *ē, *ō (and possibly *ā). Sometimes a colon (:) is employed instead of the macron sign to indicate vowel length (*a:, *e:, *o:).
Diphthongs: *ei, *eu, *ēi, *ēu, *oi, *ou, *ōi, *ōu, (*ai, *au, *āi, *āu). Diphthongs are sometimes understood as combinations of a vowel plus a semivowel, e. g. *ey or *ei̯ instead of *ei.
D: but I expected this. PIE would be for humans and by humans. Home Sapiens - us.
The test remains to check vocabulary for just a few (but statistically significant) anomalous homonyms.
*wi-ro- man (derived from *wei@- vital force)
*dkm-tom- hundred (derived from *dekm- ten)
D: looks like I'll hafta pore over about a 1000 words from the Watkins book.
See my blog entry on words and cultural dominance.
D: so we expect to find related concepts of a minor nature to be assigned the original general very from the losing culture.
I assume that would be the neanderthals.
D: when the French dominated England, the English words were degraded to specific objects, whereas the French general category broad words remained so.
E.g. Fruit. Avalon. Avalon was "Fruit" in Anglo. It was demoted to a niche.
The same happened with many words.
So what we want to detect in pre-proto-PIE (see below for silly attempt) is
1) PIE words for general categories
2) odd vowel distribution in some subcategories that might suggest Neanderthal influence.
Obviously we can discount any innovation of 25,000 years of age or less.
Thoughts on HIOXian.
I guess there will need to be narrow and broad versions of it.
The broad versions will necessarily be language-specific.
English doesn't consider aspiration. Top and stop both use "T". Top is aspirated and stop is not.
There are any number of such qualities in allophones that we ignore. It is phonetic but not phonemic.
Whereas in Mandarin aspiration is phonemic and central. Whereas voiced/voiceless is not.
We can use the diacritic to optionally, and potentially redundantly with the main HIOX figure, display such allophonic phonetic information.
The cursive form will require a case-by-case form. A single continuous line or curve is easier to pen.
Wherewas a separate mark requires additional time.
So I have 2 competing demands in the cursive script.
The first thing to get discarded is phonetic allophonic indicators.
UNLESS they allow a continous line or curve.
Like I said - case by case.
I also considered the use of an IPA-style layout for a "narrow transcription" version containing a wealth phonetic indicators.
It would involve a large square in the bottom left, and a small square HIOX in the top right.
For Mandarin tones, I can either use the diacritic space above the main vowel, or use the left-only half of a HIOX figure prior to the word. The 2 diagonal bar segments can denote rising or falling respectively.