Neanderthals and their big, language-filled brains

One of the problems I have with modern news reporting (in addition to poor grammar and inconsistent or immature style) is the lack of concrete data presented. While quotes are used to increase validity, most ‘facts’ can be simply stated without providing the references that would be required for an academic journal, report, or paper. While for print sources such as newspapers, this kind of brevity was probably necessary to reduce costs, in the world of modern internet journalism, it’s hardly necessary. Why not give links to all your fact sources? Could it be that online publications are jealous of their readership, or that in the speed of current reporting, there is not the time or inclination to link to sources? How drole.

Take this recent article from CNN. While it clearly indicates the source for its quotes and references New Science as a location for further information, there are not direct links or complete bibliographic information for any reference. In addition, the findings of one scientist are presented as fact, rather than indicating the variety of opinion on whether or not Neanderthals even had complex language.  Why couldn’t a more diverse representation, as seen in this article, be presented here as well, especially as the claims of Mr. McCarthy seem a little far-fetched?

Let me paint you a picture of my annoyance with the audacity of ‘creating a Neanderthal sentence’, beyond the debate on whether or not they actually spoke.  First off, language is, to a certain extent, arbitrary.  With the notable exception of onomatopoeia, words do not sound like their meanings.  My intended meaning when I speak the word ‘dog’ could just as easily be represented by the sounds ‘oo’, ‘chien’, ‘pajama’, ‘calb’ or ‘gau’.  In addition, various modern languages are made up of sounds that don’t exist in all other languages.   An example many people are familiar with is the Spanish rolled ‘r’ sound, or the click sounds of the African language, Xhosa.  The idea that someone could recreate or interpret meaning from the range of sounds a species could produce is therefore based on at least two fallacies – first, that the sounds made would somehow be translatable into meaning, and second, that the range of sounds producible by an individual of a species would all be used by that individual.

Finally, while the re-creation of the sounds a Neanderthal could make may get us a little closer to understanding them, the idea of recreating what they actually said, how they may have combined sounds and stresses together, seems a bit too extreme for modern linguistics at the moment.  Linguistic studies of a range of languages on Earth through the course of history have been able to draw some conclusions on natural speech patterns in humans.  We know that one type of sound shift is more likely to occur than another (for example, it’s more easy for a ‘t’ sound to change to a voiced ‘th’ sound than the other way around, as in the German vaTer to the English faTHer).  However, there is no certainty that any shift will occur, or how frequently shifts may occur.  It is unclear to me how a Neanderthal range of sounds could then be created by working backward from modern languages, even when taking anthropological discoveries in to account, with any degree of veracity.  In addition, there is no real certainty that the speech patterns we have observed over time in modern man would be equally applicable to Neanderthals.

I am certain I do not understand much of the research involving fossilized larynx and brain and bone studies that Mr. McCarthy is drawing on to make his suppositions.  however, the lack of direct information given by the press and my own limited understanding leads me to interpret the paucity of information as indication of little prof to back up a hypothesis.


1 Comment

  1. NewsBlaze said,

    April 17, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Hi. I like your blog. I’ll send some people to check it out, in the book we’re working on. The media don’t usually give links to their sources, they never have. That’s more of an academic thing and blogs do it because a lot of bloggers are academics. We do it a lot at, but it depends on teh story and the writer and the editor. When you publish hundreds of stories per day, it is really hard to do them all.

    As for poor grammar and spelling, nobody is perfect, but there seems to be a lowering of quality recently. Blame it on the editor (that would usually be me at NewsBlaze). Some of our reporters are in Nepal, Kashmir, India and while they write and speak English, they have local dialect that can be a problem, so their stories take longer to process and sometimes I will miss something.

    Usually, the things that go really wrong are the ones that are done at the last minute. I had a story from Iraq last year, that had six errors. After I fixed them, I sent it back to the Captain who sent it to me, so he could fix it before sending it elsewhere and he couldn’t believe it – he had five people read it before he sent it to me. You have to be special to be an editor – pedantic and careful because if you skim, you can easily miss things – and spell checkers are only useful for finding the worst errors.

    In the story you refer to above, it really would have been useful for them to give links, but then they wouldn’t have power over you, so they don’t do that. They don’t want you to leave their site. Another possible reason is that most people aren’t as inquisitive as you and wouldn’t use the links anyway.

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post. Keep up the good work you do.

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