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Science

Computers Emulate Neanderthal Speech 220

Posted by Zonk
from the borrow-a-cup-of-evolution dept.
Clarence writes "After some 30,000 years of silence, the Neanderthal race is once again speaking thanks to some advanced computer simulation. A Florida Atlantic University professor is using software vocal tract reconstructions to emulate the speech of our long-dead distant relatives. 'He says the ancient human's speech lacked the "quantal vowel" sounds that underlie modern speech. Quantal vowels provide cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another, says Robert McCarthy, who was talking at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11. In the 1970s, linguist Phil Lieberman, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, inferred the dimensions of the larynx of a Neanderthal based on its skull. His team concluded that Neanderthal speech did not have the subtlety of modern human speech.'"
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Computers Emulate Neanderthal Speech

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  • by Mordok-DestroyerOfWo (1000167) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @06:41PM (#23096832)
    Although I find it hard to believe that there is still discussion as to whether or not Neanderthals had speech. They existed as a discreet species for over 100,000 years and even primates having diverged millions of years before that show basic signs of verbal communication. I would be really curious to see how aspects of proto Indo-European would sound as pronounced by Neanderthals. The last fossils come from France and Spain some 35,000 years ago and it's not unrealistic to suppose that some version of the language would have been spoken by them.
  • by pclminion (145572) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @06:45PM (#23096886)

    Who would have guessed.

    I wonder if early humans, such as Neanderthals, communicated primarily by speech or by a combination of speech and hand signals. The fact that human infants as young as 7 months (at the extreme) are capable of communication by signs, even before they are able to talk, suggests to me that language ability in humans might have evolved prior to the development of a modern vocal tract.

    I would not be surprised, if we could go back in time, to see early humans communicating primarily by signs, with vocal communication only as a backup. After all, you don't want to make noise when hunting game anyway.

  • by spleen_blender (949762) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @06:49PM (#23096952)
    All mammals seem to have some form of intercommunication it seems though by that measure, even if it is by scent or subtle body/tail movements. Is our only difference the specificity which our language can define our environment?
  • by pclminion (145572) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @06:51PM (#23097002)

    All mammals seem to have some form of intercommunication it seems though by that measure, even if it is by scent or subtle body/tail movements. Is our only difference the specificity which our language can define our environment?

    I think the real difference between human communication and that of other animals is the fact that we have grammars which directly encode semantic content. An ape can be taught to sign, but the signing lacks grammar, being more a string of symbols with no clear semantic relation.

    Modern sign languages are grammatical. I think the sign languages of ancient humans were probably grammatical as well. In other words, I'm speculating that grammar might have evolved before speech did.

  • by Mantaar (1139339) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @07:07PM (#23097258) Homepage
    Dude, his research is close to a tautology anyways: "His team concluded that Neanderthal speech did not have the subtlety of modern human speech.'"

    Who the hell gave the grant for this research? Of course, you can sort of create an apparatus that follows the same constraints as a Neanderthal larynx would have followed, but apart from piping /dev/urandom through it, you really can't do jack with it.

    Now, we're fairly sure that concerning syntax, early human's language surely followed some sort of predicative model - that can be seen when analyzing more isolated and primitive languages (which are mostly dead by now) - especially aboriginal languages of America and Oceania/Australia. Sentences there usually are of the form "This is an Apple. This is red." - instead of "This is a red apple". Basically they were speaking in "features", chaining them together, which resulted in either isolating languages (words have no inflection and are immutable, syntactic structure gives a sentence meaning "This apple is. This red is." Chinese works this way) or agglutinating languages (like early Nahuatl, they would incorporate subjects and objects into their words: "Thisapple and Thisred".) in the end. More sophisticated stuff, like polysynthetic languages (Inuktitut) and inflectional languages (Germanic) are thought to have evolved thereafter. But of course, this is one hypothesis and there is no way of proving any of this. You can only use fairly circumstantial evidence.

    And what this guy did was in no fucking way making "Neanderthals talk". Not even close. He just explored what kind of restrictions the anatomy of a Neanderthal's speech tract would impose on their phonetics (not even phonology let alone phonotaxis), so basically, he can now say: this is what it would have sounded like, but not more. Talk about misleading summaries/headlines/articles.
  • by Reality Master 201 (578873) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @07:15PM (#23097354) Journal
    I see some posts about how it's not surprising that Neanderthal speech wasn't surprising, and what did they expect, poetry?

    This research isn't about what the Neanderthals said - it's about the kinds of sounds they were able to produce with their vocal tracts (or Liberman's models of them). The lack of subtlety is the lack of the ability to produce recognizably distinct vowel sounds.
  • by Mordok-DestroyerOfWo (1000167) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @07:20PM (#23097422)
    I'm not making a claim that Neanderthals spoke PIE and yes, language changes faster than any kind of morphologic trait. The question is whether language was a spontaneous innovation that occurred multiple times around the world, or if there was one mother tongue that everything else derived from. There may be absolutely no correlation between PIE and what the Neanderthal spoke but anthropological and archaeological evidence is so murky from that time period that it would irresponsible to rule something out just because it isn't part of what is considered to be mainstream.
  • by gardyloo (512791) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @07:44PM (#23097774)
    Perhaps, perhaps. A recent National Geographic article about animals' communications stressed the _grammar_ inherent (the order of words definitely mattered, and not just in a "fetch the green ball and then the red ball" way) in some ways that animal owners were able to talk to their pets. Or perhaps not. Anyway, the article is here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text/1 [nationalgeographic.com]
  • Yes and no. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jd (1658) <[moc.oohay] [ta] [kapimi]> on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @08:18PM (#23098090) Homepage Journal
    I agree completely with most of what you say, but you CAN do certain things, though they are very limited. The range of phonemes planetwide is vast (far and away larger than can be produced in a language like English), and in principle you could collect all of those phonemes and see which ones could be reproduced by a Neanderthal. You can then categorize which sounds are correctly reproduced, which are "good enough" (comprehensible to someone with another dialect, or perhaps another native language) and which are nowhere close. The summary suggests that that phonemes associated with a certain specific class of vowels always fall into the "nowhere close" category, meaning that if those phonemes were used, regions would not be mutually intelligable by vocal communication.

    This assumes several things. It assumes phonemes were used, for example. There's an island where the native language is communicated by whistles. The language, if I recall the article correctly, is descended from Spanish. The series of whistles constitute a series of samples at regular intervals along Spanish words, so there is a 1:1 translation between the two. Whistles, of course, do not use phonemes at all and therefore such a form of communication is not subject to the intelligability of sounds. (All I need is one example to prove that there exists a real, plausible solution that violates the assumptions made. I don't need to prove that the solution actually applied to Neanderthals, so long as my attempt to falsify really is plausible.)

    If phonemes were used, then it assumes that language drifted sufficiently for a communication barrier to exist. That's more reasonable. Neanderthals didn't have that much mobility, so maintaining a unified language and accent across the entire space they occupied, over the entire time Neanderthals existed, would likely have been impossible. I can buy into the idea of there being sufficient drift to cause problems over a large enough distance, but if there is an intelligability problem and communication with nearest neighbour is absolutely essential, that drift was locked within certain parameters and (if you want to look at it in modern networking terms) could not have exceeded some limit on a per-hop basis. That might be an interesting result to have.

    It also assumes that the constraints were the same. Modern languages are heavily based on very complex grammars and therefore don't need a particularly wide range of sounds or symbols. Very early written languages directly descend from pictographic systems and require a considerably greater number of symbols and signifiers. By inference, I'm going to say that very early spoken languages would also use a much wider range of sounds and fewer rules for inferring a specific meaning for a specific sound in a specific context. If that is correct, and the parent poster seems to have vastly more knowledge on this than I do so can probably answer this, it should be much rarer for two distinct words to sound alike enough to be confusing even with different accents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @08:58PM (#23098520)
    A few things I'd like to say. Firstly Neanderthals have suffered a lot of bad press over the years. The word itself is often used to describe "Homer Simpson" type people, i.e. stupid.

    What most people aren't aware of is that when compared by cc Neanderthal brains were, in fact, larger than those of modern humans. You and I have a mass of around 1400cc, a Neanderthal 1500cc. (a rough guess, anthropology classes were a long time ago) How much of this is extra mass is related to them having more musculature thus greater need for control, we don't really know.

    Still, they were certainly smart. As far as culture goes, Neanderthals had rudimentary technology and more importantly they had ritual. Graves show that they buried their dead with flowers and other trinkets. This suggests some concept of "remorse" or even the afterlife. These are clearly human traits, so they were obviously closer to us in thinking than other apes.

    On the main subject of Neanderthal language. Well, there's a theory that it is not, in fact, an extinct language at all. In northern Spain and southern France there's a strange "language islote" called Basque. As far as modern linguists are concerned this language exists in a little language family of its own, totally unrelated to any other in the global family. It certainly pre-dates the Indo-European languages that are prevalent in most of Europe. This raises another question is: What is the Origin of the Basques? Who knows?

    However, it may JUST be coincidence that the last (as far as archaeologists can tell) Neanderthals lived in Iberia. So is Basque is the linguistic cockroach - staying alive when all around it dies? Who knows. There is some strange evidence. Basque people have a 55% O blood group - the highest percentage in the world, which suggests some genetic differentiation from the rest of us. In a nut shell, though, we really don't have a clue.
  • by belg4mit (152620) on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @09:57PM (#23099046) Homepage
    The majority of google hits for the phrase are in reference to this paper.
    Of the remaining hundred or so, most use the term in quotes without actually
    iving a definition... All I've been able to determine is that y is qunatal &
    e is not. Spectacular!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 16, 2008 @09:59PM (#23099072)

    Now, we're fairly sure that concerning syntax, early human's language surely followed some sort of predicative model
    As does modern human language...

    - that can be seen when analyzing more isolated and primitive languages (which are mostly dead by now) - especially aboriginal languages of America and Oceania/Australia.
    Linguists like Sapir have made it quite clear that such aboriginal languages are just as sophisticated and expressive as any other languages of the world. They have died out because of the ebb and flow of civilizations, not because of inherent "primitiveness" of the language.

    Sentences there usually are of the form "This is an Apple. This is red." - instead of "This is a red apple".
    It sounds like you pulled that from your ass. American languages, for instance, are perfectly capable of expressing "This is a red apple" (in Lakhota [wikipedia.org], it would be "Le thaspan sha", literally "this apple red"--and before you complain about it missing the copula verb "is", please note that Russian does the same thing). In any case, it makes no sense to analyze another language by using English-language sentences without any further explanation.

    Basically they were speaking in "features", chaining them together, which resulted in either isolating languages (words have no inflection and are immutable, syntactic structure gives a sentence meaning "This apple is. This red is." Chinese works this way) or agglutinating languages (like early Nahuatl, they would incorporate subjects and objects into their words: "Thisapple and Thisred".) in the end.
    Chinese is a very prominent, in no way primitive, modern language. English itself is fairly isolating when compared to its Germanic origins--for example, it has lost case markings in preference for isolative mechanisms such as prepositions or use of word order to distinguish roles (which is why you can say "I gave him the book" and know it means "I gave the book to him" and not "I gave him to the book"). And by the way, the actual way of saying "This is an apple" in Mandarin Chinese is "Zhe shi yige pingguo", which happens to be identical with the English sentence in structure.

    Isolation and polysynthesis are simply two different ways of encoding information; they put no bounds on the expressiveness of a language, only on the form that it takes.

    More sophisticated stuff, like polysynthetic languages (Inuktitut) and inflectional languages (Germanic) are thought to have evolved thereafter.
    Polysynthetic languages are fairly rare, and actually some of the "primitive" languages you mentioned earlier were/are polysynthetic. See Wikipedia [wikipedia.org].

    I really suggest you read Edward Sapir's "Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech" (available here [bartleby.com] for free). As described in that book, there is a natural tendency for languages to drift in their syntactic "philosophy" over time.
  • Re:Caucasians (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcvos (645701) on Thursday April 17, 2008 @03:16AM (#23101144)

    Another theory is that modern humans evolved separately all over the world. In that case caucasians would be evolved neanderthals.
    That's not a seriously supported theory. The common ancestor between Europeans and Africans lived long after the rise of Neanderthals. The common ancestor of Europeans and Asians lived long after that.

    (I'm aware that this issue is a bit more complicated than this; Africans are not nearly as homogenous a group as Europeans and Asians, and some Africans are more closely related to Europeans than to some other Africans, but let's not get into that detail here, okay? My point is that all modern humans are much more closely related to each other than to Neanderthals.)

    Still another theory is that early modern humans interbred with neanderthals. In that case caucasians would still have neanderthal genes to this day.
    This is a serious theory. I believe the consensus at the moment is that Neanderthals died out without passing genes on to modern Europeans, but some scientists disagree. It's certainly not impossible that it happened, but there's no evidence that I know of (which doesn't mean much, since I'm not a geneticist or paleontologist or something like that).

    None of the last two theories have been proven and the first theory is more accepted. If the first theory is correct then it is possible that since neanderthals and modern Europeans both had to live in the same climate it makes sense that their outward appearances might become similar after a while.
    Keep in mind that Neanderthals lived in that environment far longer than modern Europeans have. We only showed up here some 70,000 years ago at best, whereas Neanderthals lived here for a couple of hundred thousand years. Homo sapiens clearly lived here for long enough to develop pale skin, but not long enough to develop very significant anatomical differences compared to African branches of homo sapiens.

    Personally I think that it is likely that neanderthals have been given a bad rap and were probably more advanced than we give them credit for. Maybe if they were still around they would be able to fit in quiet nicely in our modern world? Of course we have enough trouble with racism in a world where were all human and have surprisingly little genetic differences. Imagine how history would be different if there were more than one species of advanced hominids living to this day.
    Seen the TV series Cavemen?
  • Re:Obligatory joke (Score:3, Interesting)

    by electrictroy (912290) on Thursday April 17, 2008 @10:14AM (#23104032)
    From what I've read, Dubya Bush was originally criticized for being "too smart" and it cost him several early campaigns.

    As a result he *purposefully* dumbed himself down, so as to create a more welcoming persona for the viewers (i.e. "he's just an average guy like us"). Bush probably says "nukulars" on purpose; same way that Clinton purposefully mispronounced Saddam.

    Bush's actual IQ (130) ranks him as the 2nd dumbest president after Ulysses S. Grant (the general who won the Civil War). The smartest president was John Quincy Adams (Republican), followed by Thomas Jefferson (also Republican).

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