It seems to me that attempts to imagine the evolutionary origin of
speech never make enough of an effort to account for the particular
kind of language we've ended up with. Alternatives may be far
from obvious, but to demonstrate that they do exist, here's an
what-if. It also happens to shed some
light on a question first raised by Arthur Dent: why are cavemen so
bad at Scrabble?
This page is a companion to the ones on Futurese and Alternese; readers may also wish to compare and contrast my notes on SF Xenolinguistics and SF Chronophysics. Or if you just want a run-of-the-mill constructed language, there's a more detailed one over here.
|/||PREFACE – First Words|
|//||PALAEOLINGUISTICS – Evolving Sciences|
|///||INNATENESS – Early Talkers|
|////||PROTOLANGUAGE – Origin of Speeches|
|/////||NEANDERTHALESE – Conlang of the Cave Bear|
|//////||PHONOLOGY – The Voice of the Mousterians|
|///////||GRAMMAR – Flint-Axe Syntax|
|////////||EXAMPLES – Towards Babel|
|/////////||HOLOCENESE – Scrabble for Survival|
Unlike most of my language-related pages, this one doesn't have much phonetically transcribed material, but what it does have is presented directly in Unicode IPA script, so apologies to anybody stuck using the sort of stone-age web-browser that can't cope with this.
There has never been any shortage of theories in the field of glossogeny (that is, the origins of language). Back in the nineteenth century, there were so many that linguists had to declare the entire topic forbidden territory – it was a waste of effort to debate the theories when there was no evidence to work from! That was a remarkably sensible decision, but the emergence of techniques like molecular genetics has changed things recently.
Unfortunately, the field also falls between two disciplines that
have traditionally ignored one another. There is still a
tendency for theoretical linguists to see their subject-matter as
so super-special that it couldn't possibly have been
incrementally bodged into existence by anything as haphazard and
biological as natural selection; it must be a pure chunk of
spontaneously crystallised loveliness (to caricature Chomsky's
apparent attitude). And on the other side there has always
been a tendency for biologists to overlook the stranger features
of human language, confusing it with the sorts of communication
that chimps are capable of (like learning to hammer the
GIMME button and the
button alternately), and taking it for granted that all they'd
need is a few extra neurons and they'd automatically end up
Another simple example of this failure of imagination: we evolved
from bipedal great apes, world champions in hand/eye coordination
with no special preadaptations for auditory processing or
breath-control – as far as we know, their vocalisations
were essentially governed by involuntary reflex. We have no
reason to assume their development of more sophisticated modes of
communication started with grunting; any sign-language user could
tell you the advantages gestural languages have over oral
ones. An early reliance on transparently iconic
language might help to explain the origin of intentional
referential behaviour too (that is, verbally
things). Homo erectus showed some development of the
brain regions used for language-processing; and yet I frequently
see it assumed that if its larynx wasn't like ours, then it must
have been entirely dumb.
Meanwhile, some computational modellers have come up with
simulations suggesting that it's easy for the right kinds of
neural nets to self-organise their way through the early steps in
the development of verbal communication. The problem with
this is that in real life most species don't take those steps; on
the contrary, if it was any rarer, there'd be nobody to comment
on the fact! This implies that the question is really: what
were we doing with the
right kinds of neural nets for
processing combinatorial code-systems built up in complex nested
hierarchies? Those things really don't grow on trees of the
physical variety! Things would be more explicable if only
we could show that our early ancestors had some special problem
(not shared by their primate cousins) to which a basic
missing-link protoparser was the natural solution. There
have been several suggestions…
a special language-y sort of communicating, in which case this proposed explanation boils down to
language is for language. Try again.
The answer may well be that several of these functions were significant at different stages; after all, you don't get from a hooting ape-creature to a Homer (or a Fred Flintstone) in a single leap. There has to have been a consistent long-term tendency for some individuals, or tribes, or species, to succeed because they had slightly fancier communicatory modalities… but the early stages are still utterly mysterious. We have no idea to the nearest half-million years when it was that the first hominid used a conventional symbolic name for a particular kind of entity, or coined an original word as opposed to an instinctive cry, or treated the order in which words were produced as significant. We don't know which of these developments came first, or whether the communicative impulse behind them was sincere or manipulative, or how long it was before the innovators found people to talk to who were capable of understanding!
Well, I'm not going to pretend that I know better than any of the people doing research in this field; rather than attempt to present an Elaborated Handwaving Hypothesis for glossogeny, I'll concentrate on later stages, when language had developed into a state almost but not quite like what we're used to.
Just as babies seem to be born capable of recognising a human
face, they also seem to have a natural urge to acquire a human
language, and very reliably go through a developmental stage of
doing so, regardless of whether or not anybody is trying to
teach them one (unlike for instance kittens, which may
overhear plenty of speech but will never think to try imitating
it). This is what linguists normally mean when they refer
innateness: not that you were born preprogrammed with
knowledge of English, just that you were born with an aptitude
for language. Children don't need to be shown diagrams of
conjugation systems, or even to know that there's any such
thing – they just soak up the skills required to operate
one effortlessly. If you try to fob children off with a
grammar-deficient pidgin, which doesn't quite satisfy this thirst
for a fully functional mother-tongue, they're liable to improve on
what they're given, getting together and fleshing it out into a
creole language. In one recent famous case, the pupils at a
Nicaraguan school for the deaf bypassed their teachers' clumsy
efforts to get them to lip-read Spanish and instead developed a
more satisfyingly useful
sign creole all of their
own. But the knack for automatic language acquisition seems
to fade away over time, which explains why picking up an
accentless fluency in a new language goes from being child's play
to almost impossible somewhere around puberty.
More controversially, many linguists suspect that babies have
biassed expectations about what sort of grammar they're going to
be presented with – innate prejudices that make them
more effective at learning a human language than you'd expect a
hypothetical grammar-detective to be that was entirely reliant on
empirical evidence. Infants down the ages have been given
the task of deducing how it all works; the ones that picked it up
quickly could get on with discovering what
wolves were and
how to wheedle treats from grandparents. We can expect to
be descended from the ones whose intuitions happened to make them
fast human-language-absorbers, a filter applied consistently over
so many generations that the tendency to make good guesses may
have become partly instinctive.
(As it happens the linguists who believe most strongly in such an inbuilt mental module tend to present it as if it was a sort of Language Acquisition Wizard –
Looks like you're trying to assimilate a native tongue. Is it:
- Polysynthetic?[Cancel] [<Back] [Next>] [Finish]
…But it doesn't have to be anything like that, honestly!)
Now, it's clear that whatever hereditary component there might be
in this putative language instinct, it produces no variation in
the grammars that modern babies from different parts of the globe
are capable of handling (look at the ethnic diversity and
linguistic homogeneity of the USA). So if it really
happened, the process must have had three phases. First was
the phase of mutant mind powers – the period of
competition between types of brain, and types of language, that
provided genuinely different levels of communicative
functionality. Then the
winning system became
uniformly present in the ancestral genome. By the time our
sapiens forebears started scattering out of Africa (before
50,000 BC), we must already have been into the third phase, in
which the detailed accommodations between neuroanatomy and grammar
were always in the quicker and easier direction of our languages
evolving to suit our brains rather than the reverse.
Unfortunately, any coupling between human neurology and human
languages makes things difficult when it comes to theoretical
discussions about logically possible alternative kinds of
language… the self-evident superiority of our way of doing
it may be no more than a natural bias in our intuitions, like the
one that made vision seem such a simple thing to handle until we
tried actually implementing it in working software. If
common sense in a vacuum is untrustworthy, maybe what's needed is
experimental constructed languages with designs that don't match
our prejudices, so that we can evaluate whether they're plausible
alternatives that need to be taken into account or whether that
aspect of language was always a necessary
Are all present-day languages descended from the language of the
earliest hominid to start talking? Well, no, some of them,
like the Nicaraguan case I mentioned, have pedigrees stretching
back only decades or centuries. But ignoring oddities like
that, which may well have been rare until historical times, yes,
monogenesis is plausible enough.
There have even been attempts to reconstruct a vocabulary for
Proto-World, the hypothetical shared ancestor of all
modern human languages. Now, it's true that when you
compare Icelandic, Bengali, and most of the languages in between,
you can can trace a family tree linking each of them to a single
stem in about 5,000+ BC known as Proto-Indo-European; and
there are tantalising hints that Proto-Indo-European and its
immediate neighbours in Africa and Asia are all members of a
superfamily. However, orthodox linguists don't expect
anything solid to come out of genealogical speculations this
remote; inter-language relationships more than a few millennia
old are hard to make out in the background noise of coincidental
resemblances. Language evolution can be remarkably orderly
in the short term, but in the long term it's a process of
unpredictable reshuffling and reorganisation on every
level. Once you're looking far enough back to unify the
dialects of Wagga Wagga and Ouagadougou, any pattern in the
static is guaranteeably a hallucination.
Mind you, whether the optimists working towards
Proto-World get anywhere or not, their target isn't the
primordial hominid Ursprache. We can reconstruct
Proto-Germanic from its known daughter-languages (Old Norse,
Gothic, Old English, etc.), then use Proto-Germanic and its
siblings (such as Hittite and Proto-Iranian) to deduce things
about Proto-Indo-European, and so on up the wobbly ziggurat of
conjectures. But the furthest back this can possibly take
us is the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the world's attested
languages (that is, the latest language that all others
can trace a line of descent from). And that's a
retrospectively conferred title, not a mark of any special
intrinsic property. Imagine that Proto-World first divided
into a thriving and diversifying eastern branch, which
overwhelmed and replaced all rival language families, and a less
successful western branch, which today is represented by only one
surviving leaf: the secret ritual tongue of some tribe in the
Kalahari. If that language dies out, so does any hope of
reconstructing its origins – the furthest back we can
get is Easternese, which claims the title of Most Recent Common
Ancestor. And so on; as minority languages disappear, the
MRCA moves closer and closer…
Or then again it's possible to imagine scenarios that would push the MRCA back into the distant past. The current consensus picture of our evolution features waves of increasingly human-like species, from Homo habilis through to Homo sapiens, radiating out and supplanting the existing pre-human populations. Some of these waves may have involved languages as well as peoples being driven to extinction. Or not – like the Manchus (in China) or the Normans (twice, first in Normandy and then in England), the invaders may have ended up adopting the local vernacular themselves. In which case, some current human languages might be descended from non-human languages!
We don't have any real idea how unlikely that scenario is, since it isn't clear even in order-of-magnitude terms how long ago genus Homo developed a rudimentary linguistic capacity. If brain size is anything to go by, the big inflation in processing power started in 1,000,000 BC. There's evidence not much later of Homo heidelbergensis flint-knappers sitting together in a circle, as if they were chatting as they worked. So even 100,000 BC may be a low estimate – by then sapiens babies had been around for a long time, with throats and speech centres pretty much equivalent to modern ones (and presumably similar instinctive urges to use them). By around 10,000 years ago there are early stirrings of what would soon become writing. And yet I still occasionally find reference books dating the origin of language to about that late… an idea that leaves me speechless, along with all my sub-Saharan forefathers.
Oops, now that I've mentioned the N‑word, I suppose I'd
better perform the ceremonial exorcism of popular
misconceptions. Forget the cartoons of shambling misshapen
apemen dragging their willowy mates about helplessly by their
hair. Neanderthals had sturdy, muscular
physiques – and that includes the Neanderthal women;
they may even have gone out on mixed-sex hunting parties.
stone-age cavemen made most of their tools
out of wood, not stone, and lived mostly in camps, not caves.
They stood fully upright, had brains as big as ours (or bigger,
albeit with smaller frontal lobes), used fire, buried their dead,
and lived as successful big game hunters in social groups that took
care of their sick and injured.
That's the current state of palaeontological knowledge about
Homo neanderthalensis; but what follows is a
fantasy – a sketch for an incompletely developed
language, inspired by a question that's been bothering me.
Given that we decided to build our sentences out of prefabricated
lexical tokens that were bursts of articulated noise
words), why did we go for the apparently overengineered
option of constructing these tokens themselves out of sequences of
smaller building-blocks (known to linguists as
you should get my point if you only think of them as
letters)? In the long term, it's a beautifully
extensible scheme, but who was planning for the long term?
At the early stages, it would be simpler to assign semantic
functions directly to the different distinguishable monosyllabic
utterances. And from there, well, there's at least one
alternative path that might have been followed.
First, some introductory notes on the Old Stone Age.
Neanderthals were no
noble savages, and their lives were
far from photogenic; they tended for instance to regard any
trespasser as a potential meal. However, many of the
unpleasant practices we think of as
barbarous – torturous initiation rites, blood
sacrifice, etcetera – were thought up by Homo
dial-up(telephones used to have dials… you know, like sundials). But in palaeolithic traditional cultures, creative urges were rare, mysterious, and deeply personal things, so original ideas were seen as parts of their inventor's own spirit, which it would be wrong to leave in the living world after they died. As a result, their way of life was almost unimaginably static – imagery based on (say) details of knot-tying technique stayed vividly intelligible down the generations.
Two things Neanderthalese definitely wasn't:
I ain't done nuffinkbecause they're throwbacks; they speak like that because they're successfully following the grammatical conventions of a speech community where (as in Ancient Greek) so-called
double negativesare mandatory. It may be a community that's despised by the ruling classes, but modern social stratifications have nothing to do with palaeoanthropology.
Two things Neanderthalese kind of was:
And two things Neanderthalese definitely was:
linguistic universals(for instance it didn't exactly have verbs).
primitive. They'd function perfectly well in any physics classroom if you gave them a chance to come up with equivalents to such English technical terms as
Eigenvector. The earliest
archaiclanguages, on the other hand, were fundamentally limited in their capacity to express ideas.
When I refer on this page to
Modernese I'm just using a
handy cover-term for all the dialects of modern Homo
sapiens (and Ancient Sumerian counts for my purposes as
modern); but the language I describe below is
Neanderthalese in the truest sense. It was spoken
forty millennia ago in what's now called the Neander valley (near
Düsseldorf) by the man known to science as
Neanderthal 1 – the original type
specimen of Homo neanderthalensis. One reason for
being so specific here is that what I'm describing is the male
form of the language! The subtle physiological differences
between male and female vocal tracts were emphasised in
Neanderthal society; an avoidance of rhotic (R‑like) sounds
was taken to be characteristic of female speech, and while both
sexes had a tendency to lisp,
slushy sibilants were a
The way systems of linguistic sounds work in Modernese is that
each language maintains a smallish inventory of discrete
building-blocks of sound (
phonemes) distinguished from one
another by patterns of features. For instance the English
phonemes /z/ as in ZEAL and /s/ as in SEAL are
alike in being alveolar sibilant fricatives, but differ in the
single feature of voicing: /z/ is voiced, meaning that
it involves vibration of the vocal cords, while /s/ is
voiceless, meaning that it involves air passing through with no
vibration. The same distinctive feature separates
/v/ as in VEAL from /f/ as in FEEL,
/d/ as in DEAL from /t/ as in TEAL, and so
on. Other languages have different inventories of
building-blocks which treat different sets of features as
important and distinctive; for instance Spanish has just one
sibilant that may be pronounced voiced or voiceless as convenient
in different contexts (and the same was true in Old English).
Neanderthalese phonology wasn't like that – instead the
distinctive unit to which features were applied was syllables
as a whole. Each syllable was a bundle of abstract
phonological features, represented here by marking the values of
each of eight features within curly brackets (only
visible in CSS-enabled browsers). To take a simple
example: NGA indicates
Nasal Dorsal Plosive Plain Open
Mid Neutral Normal. You might transcribe the
pronunciation of that combination into (Unicode) IPA as something
like [ŋɑ̃], but only as a
rough guide – even if Neanderthal throats had been
exactly like ours, it still wouldn't really be appropriate to think
of it as a string of discrete elements (subdividing it into an
onset phase and a
release phase is about as far as
you can safely go). Nonetheless, the notation is designed to
resemble an ordinary alphabetic script, with the specific
feature-marking symbols chosen to give an impression of the
resulting sound; and assimilation rules are applied to prevent some
of the more obvious misinterpretations – for instance
NGA is written that way rather than as NKA in order
to avoid the implication of a voiceless element.
The Syllable-Feature System
Here are some detailed examples:
ngghwawng), a throat-clearing noise followed by a relatively open vowel, with the whole syllable tense, voiced, nasal, and back-rounded on a long-drawn-out high note.
vruh?), where the onset is a weakly voiced cross between a V and an R, and the release is a rather flavourless vowel-sound, pronounced on an interrupted rising note.
HSHHA), a weakly strident sound followed by a front open vowel, all pronounced with a broad smile.
These combinations of features can easily give the impression of
calling for unusual dexterity in pronunciation, but the truth is
quite the reverse. In a
simple English word such as,
simple will do nicely, the vocal apparatus has to
switch from voiceless to voiced to voiceless to voiced, in
perfect coordination with some delicate adjustments in the
positioning of the tongue and lips, and with the switching on and
off of nasal airflow. To the Neanderthals, that would be a
real tongue-twister; they were used to whole syllables that
either were or weren't
voiced and/or nasal, with much more
room for sloppy synchronisation.
If you add them up, you'll find there were barely five thousand
ug wasn't one of them). This may
seem a limited vocabulary, especially given that many of the
potential syllables were unused, but it was enough. Over
the millennia, there were minor variations in what syllables (and
combinations of syllables) were used for what purposes, but the
phonological system itself was naturally resistant to the
constant piecemeal sound-shifts that affect our languages.
This guide doesn't need a section on the rules of Neanderthalese phonotactics, because their words weren't made of strung-together phonemes; it doesn't need tables of morphological paradigms, because their utterances were all built out of uninflected monosyllables; and it goes without saying that there's no need for a section on their writing system. This fits the stereotype well enough; they weren't as linguistically gifted as us, so it makes sense that their language should strike us as having some holes in it.
But if anybody came here expecting their grammar lessons to
amount to a handful of easy rules, then their prejudices have led
them astray: this was, in a way, the one thing they had too much
of. A description of the essential rules of basic
Neanderthalese would have many more pages than an equivalent
summary for English, because instead of having a manageable
number of highly generic sentence-building rules (like
subject, verb, object), the language was made up of a
patchwork of formulas that applied only to subsets of the
People learning English still have to memorise a good few such
rules – consider for instance phrasal verbs such as
show off (or
show up). The verb and its
adverbial-particle companion may each contribute something to the
sense, but they do it in a vague, arbitrary, and unpredictable
fashion. Sometimes patterns are detectable, such as that
eat something up,
chop it up, or
up (with a shared figurative element of complete
consumption)… but if you try to extend that pattern you'll
find that you can't
spend something up,
smoke it up. There's no particular logic
to it; those forms simply don't happen to be on the list of
generally accepted usages. These days such irregular
subsystems are uncommon enough to be seen as exceptions, but in
the Europe of 40K BC they were (so to speak) the rule.
Children learned each grammatical pattern along with the
particular set of lexical items needed to give it a context, so
mental grammar of the language that they built up
might almost equally well be called a
Underdeveloped structural features
adjectives– in fact the only clear division was between
accusative. Neanderthalese had only a rudimentary form of this system, amounting to little more than topic-marking.
ostentatoryutterance type for drawing attention to things.
Of course, even today there are practical limits on the complex
abstract parse-trees we can process on the fly, but unlike the
Neanderthals we routinely push these limits with everything from
convoluted written legalese to jokes (
time flies like an
arrow; fruit flies like a banana).
This category was by far the larger, partly because content-words
could be built up as arbitrarily long polysyllabic compounds
whose meanings were loosely determined by the semantics of the
component parts. Take for example the previously mentioned
syllable NGA, which had the basic sense
was also the normal word for
sting. Given an
appropriate frame of reference it could mean
interrupting noise, or
cramp; and then it
occurred as an element in compounds such as
blade branch). A further factor that helped
Neanderthalese to fit its vocabulary within the restrictions of its
syllable-feature system was homophony: there was a second,
unconnected word NGA that might be translated
By the way, please don't interpret all these cases where Neanderthalese failed to draw simple dividing lines as implying that Neanderthals themselves were confused thinkers. They relied on verbalised reasoning much less than we tend to when making decisions, so they had no difficulty telling lightning-strikes from nettle-stings!
Not all members of the content-word category were things we'd
translate as nouns, though. In particular a great many of
them were (also) capable of functioning as verbs, if not in the
same sense as words like
are inherently transitive verbs); they always required support
from appropriate structure-words, both to force the actively
verbal interpretation and to tie down the roles of any further
The not-quite-nounlike content-words also included
NJËI, the nearest thing to a personal pronoun:
depending on the context it could mean
I/you/he/she/etc.. Most of the time pronouns were
not used – after all, general terms like
woman were already monosyllables – but a special
word MBVʿAU' was available for referring back to a
recently mentioned argument; so this could function as a reflexive
pronoun, among other uses. Then there was PFÀ,
which marked an accompanying expression as forming a name, or
something equally definitive; thus PFÀ
(the guy known as) Leaf, or
the eldest (unique senior),
Neanderthals had no use for numerals. Sure, they could
recognise the difference between four horses and five horses, or
between four tally-marks and five tally-marks, but they didn't
fiveness as a nameable property shared by
all quintets. They did have ways of marking plurals: a word
could be repeated to give the sense of multiplicity or iteration
(NGA–NGA; this is probably the world's commonest
pluralisation mechanism to this day). A special word
RʿEU was used to mark complete sets such as a pair of
legs or a pack of wolves.
The largest grouping within the structure-words was the
relationals, which worked like something between
case-markers and auxiliary verbs. They could introduce
content-words in the manner of prepositions with nouns, or give
them descriptive or verbal senses; when strung together in chains
they could interact in subtle and unpredictable ways.
cut; others require a little explanation, such as
use ear, which could mean
puzzle out a solution.
prepare earwould have to mean in a culinary sense.
resemble, and was used to create (for instance) colour-terms. PÂH NGA–JʿÄ (
resemble leaf) was of course
with; but the combination PÁU TSEH meant
right up to and/or straight into.
the tiger's claws,
the tiger's mate). It's also translated as indicating possession, except that no distinction was ever made about which way the association went – it was just as correct to say
I belong to a bladeas to say
a blade belongs to me.
Relationals, while common, were far from the only kind of
structure-word in Neanderthalese. Many of the others were
modifiers functioning rather like English modal verbs
should…) at their least
systematic. For instance, the nearest thing the language
had to a tense-marking system is the contrast between
know, claim (as a fact about the present)
that… and NDZʾÊIH,
(as a fact about the past) that…. Other somewhat
similar contrasting pairs of particles included VRÁI
stealthily, deceitfully, gradually versus
forcefully, obviously, suddenly, and
together versus NJAU
apart, separately. And there were three different ways
of forming a negative, used with different kinds of statements or
with different overtones:
Another feature of the language that was distinctively
Neanderthalish was the
equivalents in English may be conjunctions (such as
so) or interjections (like the ones conventionally spelled
mmhmm). They worked to tie
utterances together, without themselves necessarily having any
clear syntactic role; and they often occupied a phonological grey
area, being neither regular syllables nor unstructured
sound-effects. Many of them were normally supported or
replaced by paralinguistic cues such as frowning or
shrugging. A typical example is ʾA, meaning
now then. Less typical are the
overworked near-structure-words NDÈ
and/certainly) and NDÉ (
look, it's a man, and a woman too!
look, it's a man or woman
indeed he was angry!(literally
and that blood feel)
was it a man?(literally
or man or deny man)
who was angry?(lit.
or this blood feel or that blood feel)
if it's a man then it isn't a woman(lit.
or man and deny woman).
Since I'm trimming all this down to something I can explain in a
hurry it may seem that I'm contradicting myself, on the one hand
claiming that Neanderthalese lacked structure and on the other
giving examples of individual constructions which all appear to
work perfectly well. The thing is, those low-level
building-blocks were carrying all the load. Neanderthalese
sentences were a sort of bottom-up cooperative effort where you
knew what role word A served because it occurred in a
formulaic combination with its immediate neighbour, word B,
and together they established a semantic infrastructure that made
sense of word C; for instance, NGA used alongside a
name or kin-term had to mean
glance, and be followed by
some indication of the target. If the meaning was unclear
it was general-purpose reasoning from context that was relied on
to sort it out – which may seem sensible, but it's not
how it works for us moderns!
In our languages, sentences are made of standard tokens that plug
into an overarching abstract framework of syntactic
structure. If we ever want to say something that isn't a
natural fit for this framework, it's the grammar that takes
priority – for instance when you say
it looks like it
was snowing a really heavy one last night, you're inserting
one) not because they refer to
particular things in the real world but because there are
syntactic slots that can't be left empty. For a fluent
speaker of English, it's a totally automatic, unconscious process
in which your native-language grammatical intuitions bypass
everyday practical experience. If challenged, you're likely
to try to rationalise it in terms of it being the weather that's
snowing, in much the same way that an Italian might confabulate
justifications for trees being male and doors being female.
As a significant knock-on effect, Modernese tends to be good at
accommodating descriptions of unfamiliar or imaginary
situations. If a Neanderthal had attempted to say
wings have never tried to know the narrow mornings, the parts
wouldn't have assembled into an interpretable whole; but while in
concrete terms it may be nonsense, it makes a plainly grammatical
English sentence. We can even go on to argue that since the
presupposition that you have wings is false, logically speaking
it's a true proposition!
Another side-effect is that usable sample texts are hard to come by; the widely used ones are full of anachronistic props, alien social phenomena, and speaking parts for dumb animals. Even that old standby, Genesis 11:1–9, is only partially translatable. But here's a stab at it:
Neanderthalese: ʾA ÐʿAI NDZʾÊIH
Gloss (content-words underlined): now.then family remember
Rough translation: once upon a time…
They didn't go in for storytelling much, but when they did they followed strict groundrules; this introductory formula is required to establish the context that the following is something I'm not claiming to have witnessed personally.
NDZÁH TʿÉU'–TʿÉU' TʿEI' RʿEU–ÐʿAI PFʿËU KÀU
voice together-together belong set-family agreement feel
The full set of families spoke together in harmony
The reduplicated TʿÉU' here implies a shared
habit (or especially a friendship expressed in exchanges of
gifts). RʿEU–ÐʿAI isn't so bad as
an approximation to the idea of all the peoples of the world; but
before I could express the idea that in those days there were no
foreign languages I would have to spend some time explaining what a
foreign language is. Otherwise, the obvious interpretation
would be that I was saying
in the beginning, male and female
voices were indistinguishable! Instead I've fallen back
on what is I suppose the assumption behind the story: that there
were no arguments among them.
RʿEU–ÐʿAI MBʾAU' PFÄI–YRÈI NYRÈU' PFÄI TSÄ TʿËU NYRÈ'–WʿÁI'
set-family prepare home-path leave home traverse grow glow-landscape
The full set of families migrated from the territory of the dawn
Long-distance travel was usually expressed within the semantic
frame of moving through particular families' territorial ranges,
but here there are no non-nomads to move relative to –
this isn't a small band of wanderers I'm describing, it's the
entire unified world population! I'm obliged to make do with
treating the dawn as a sort of stand-in territorial term…
though oddly enough we're the ones stuck with a primitive
geocentric model of the sun
rising where the Neanderthals
instead talked about the dawn in terms of daylight coming to the
PÀIH MBVʿAU' PÂH WʿÁI'–KʿÈH–TSʾÄI
benefit same seem landscape-meadow-gap
They found themselves a plain
Implying that they discovered and claimed it, like, say, a patch
of mushrooms, rather than just selected it as a temporary
campsite. I'm not even going to try to deal with the
Shinar. Middle-Eastern Neanderthals may
have had their own name for the area, but the Rhinelanders
PFÄI MBVʿAU' TSÄ
home same grow
They settled (there)
A construction that doesn't fit the relational-plus-content-word model.
VRÉ'–VRÉ' TʿÉU' Ä
man-man together he.said
Men said to one another:
What the original says is that some guy said this to his friend. We might interpret that as meaning that people in general were discussing this sort of thing, but the concreteness is useful – for a start keeping a male speaker saves me having to quote things in a put-on female accent!
NGH MBʾAU' YRË–ÐEI NÐAI' NDʿÉIH–NDʿÉIH MBʾAU'
come.on prepare hand-fire forcefully stone-stone prepare
Let's build up a fire to cook stones thoroughly
Well, the actions are translatable, even if the motivations aren't – mmm, baked stones! But then they go on to declare their intention to use stones as stones and tar as tar… I give up on that bit.
NGH MBÀUH NDʿÉIH–NDʿÉIH PÀIH ÐʿAI MBʾAU' PFÄI
come.on use stone-stone benefit family prepare home
Let's make our home out of stones
Of course it's impossible to convey
let's build a city,
but this much does work. One of the reasons I gave this
speaking part to the men is that a woman encouraging a man to
build a shelter would be understood as offering to share it with
him. Neanderthals had no notion of taboo (or magic) words,
as such, but they did recognise innuendo…
NGH MBʾAU' NDʿÉIH–KÀI PÁU TSEH NJÁI–NÐʾÈ
come.on prepare stone-toy approach join fog-skin
Let's make a cairn right up to the heavens
A cairn was something children often built.
NJÁI–NÐʾÈ could in principle
barrier against drizzle or
sack full of mistaken
beliefs, but what it was used for was
the covering made of
clouds, meaning the sky.
NGH TʿEI' PFʾË PÀIH KÈ'
come.on belong brow benefit senior
Let's make ourselves look superior
This being a relatively opaque fixed expression, it's hard to tell whether it would be accepted as appropriate or whether it relies too heavily on the existence of outsiders they could impress.
NGH KʿE PÁU WʿÁI' TʾE' NJAU
come.on avoid approach landscape arrange apart
Let's not get scattered across the land
This can be translated as long as I drop the reference to the
whole Earth and its face. The normal context for this image
like prey from a predator, which
might suggest that the tower is intended as a sort of artificial
tree everybody can climb together; translating
cairn should help clarify that it's intended more as a
landmark to gather at.
I've just finished quoting what tradition says people said; this clarifies that we're back in the main narrative.
NJËI NJÁI–NÐʾÈ ÐʿAI TʿËI RAUH
this fog-skin family belong leader
There's this guy, the leader of the inhabitants of the heavens…
At this point I'm forced to pad the narrative out a little.
Where used like this, RAUH requires an introduction, and
the novel ideas involved call for a bit of background anyway,
most easily achieved with an ostentatory phrase. Then since
I'm not actually saying
there he is! I have to include the
pronoun NJËI, in this case spoken without an
NYRÈU' NJÁI RAUH PÁU PFÄI PÂH ÐʿAI MBʾAU' NDʿÉIH–KÀI
leave fog leader approach home seem family prepare stone-toy
The leader travelled from the clouds to spy on the people making the cairn
Time-tourists please note: from a Mousterian point of view,
coming down for a look is already hostile behaviour.
people here are strictly speaking
the Sons of
Man, but this is difficult enough without trying to convey a
patrilineal worldview at the same time.
The leader said:
wraw vaahm? – the
following being his report to the folks who'd stayed at home.
NDZÁH TʿÉU'–TʿÉU' TʿEI' RʿEU–ÐʿAI PFʿËU KÀU
voice together-together belong set-family agreement feel
The full set of families speak together in harmony
A useful recap.
MWÁH MBVʿAU' MBʾAU' YRÂH NJËI PÂH
know same prepare incipient this seem
They are making a start on this (that much is evident)
The final syllable here serves to bridge from the verifiable facts into the intelligence threat estimates.
NDÉ TSEH ÐʿAI PFʿAU KÀU NDÈ ÐʿAI JÉI PFʿAU–PFʿAU KÀU
or join family hunt feel and family lucky hunt-hunt feel
If they start out together to achieve something, then they are sure of achieving it
I can't get close to
nothing they attempt will be denied to
them (who by?), so I'll cancel out the negatives to get
this. Yes, Neanderthalese equated confidence with
NGH MVRÀI NYRÈU' NJÁI
come.on expedition leave fog
Let's set out from here in the clouds
Seemingly this particular piece of divine intervention requires multiple spellcasters at close range.
NGH JÉ NDZÁH TʾE' KXʿAU MWʾEI KXʿAU
come.on harm/undo voice arrange vine behave vine
Let's get their speech tangled like undergrowth
X-MWʾEI-X construction formed conventional
similes with plants or animals. Whether the analogy of
tangled weeds would stretch far enough to convey a concept as
confounding their language is unclear. My
phrasing here is itself a bit tangled, as I have to avoid letting
the wrong syllables end up adjacent. KXʿAU
NDZÁH would inevitably be mistaken for
KXʿÄU NDZÁH, a common chained pair of
kin-term relationals meaning approximately
kid brother of.
ʾA NDʿEU' ÐʿAI TʿÉU'–TʿÉU' PFʿËU TʾE' PÀIH ÐʿAI
now.then cannot family together-together agreement arrange benefit family
So as to stop any family parleying with another family
Again instead of language-comprehension in the abstract I'm talking about particular uses of communication (though this time I'd better not leave out the women). There's still the question of what it could mean in concrete terms to cause all this to happen, but, well, I can't help them there.
And we're back to the main narrative again.
NJAU ÐʿAI–ÐʿAI PÀIH RAUH NYRÈU' PFÄI NDʿEU' PÁU WʿÁI' TʾE' NJAU
apart family-family benefit leader leave home approach landscape arrange apart
The families scattered from there in accordance with the leader's plan
I'm rather implying that he had his angels lying in ambush.
NDʿEU' ÐʿAI–ÐʿAI MBÀUH NDʿÉIH–NDʿÉIH MBʾAU' PFÄI
cannot family-family use stone-stone prepare home
The families were prevented from making their home out of stones
The text doesn't state what happened to the cairn once the Lord was undisputed king-of-the-hill.
(And that's why, to this very day…)
The part that relates the story to the narrator's present day has to go right at the end, so I'll drop the closing summary of the plot.
TʿEI' WʿÁI' PFÀ KXʿAU MWʾEI KXʿAU WʿÁI'
belong landscape unique vine behave vine landscape
The place is calledtangled-like-undergrowth-place.
Alas, Neanderthals aren't really in a position to appreciate this Ancient Hebrew pun on the name of the city of Babylon.
What I've just described may be an early language from our perspective, but for Homo neanderthalensis it was a very late language, the product of a quarter of a million years of development, with a syllable-feature system that had been pushed almost to its limits. Nimbler tongues would have given them more available values for features such as Place or Height, but Neanderthalese simply didn't change quickly enough to bring a short-term return on investment in that sort of physiological specialisation.
And in fact it was already too late for them. The equatorial branch of the genus Homo had already made the organisational leap to a segmental phonology. This opened up a whole range of new ways for grammatical systems to function, smoothing the way to a gradual escalation in the part speech played in their mental processes; and new ways for languages to mutate, encouraging a rise in cultural diversification. Eventually, people were singing love songs, persuading rivals to back off, telling jokes about the stupid accents those hill-dwellers have, concocting tall stories about the good old days, and solving problems by internalised symbolic thought.
So by 40,000 BC a bunch of lanky, baby-faced, nattering Africans were beginning their conquest of Eurasia, spreading along the coastline (Neanderthal 1 lived well inland, with the Rhine only a tributary of the Channel River). Physically the newcomers were no threat to the muscular, weatherproof natives, and there was no great difference in brain size; but their minds had a new adaptability, and their dependence on ingenuity gave them the edge in a changing world. The Neanderthals survived alongside the Cro-Magnons for over 10,000 years, and assimilated some of their innovations, but geneticists have found no evidence of interbreeding (hybrids may or may not even have been viable).
However, if it's true that the newcomers had an innate advantage
in their aptitude for articulate speech and verbal reasoning,
then their takeover wasn't entirely a story of flexibility
beating specialisation. When it comes to language skills,
the story is the other way round, with the
humans depending on biological adaptations to provide shortcuts
instead of doing it all the hard way. Neanderthal brains
may already (I'm guessing) have had language centres predisposed
to break down input into meaningful elements, maintain a mental
lexicon full of names for things, and recombine words in
significant arrangements. But as language began to
snowball, selective advantage began pushing our ancestors towards
the development of (weak) innate constraints on the kinds of
mother-tongue they were happiest to learn. Natural selection
wouldn't care how much sense these constraints made, as long as
they accelerated language acquisition – the Baldwin
effect would just take what it was given by the statistical
tendencies in early Homo sapiens languages and turn this
known-working implementation into a standard. The rules of
thumb may have been no more specific than
expect nouns and
verbs, expect agents and patients (probably in that order),
expect words built out of strings of phonemes… all
things that seem to us like common-sense necessities for a usable
language, but they'd still seem that way even if they weren't.
Unfortunately, third-millennium-AD humans are so dependent on the cognitive substructure provided by speech that we're generally oblivious to it. In fact you yourself may find it hard to imagine that it could have had a role in early human evolution. If you are such a skeptic, and you think you'd be almost the same person even if you hadn't learned a modern-human-style language, then please step forward! Experimental palaeolinguistics needs you to sign some release forms so your children can be used in proper laboratory-controlled tests… If only the ethics committees would allow that sort of thing we'd be able to find out once and for all whether babies are born with a built-in Modernese Study Guide module in their heads, or whether they figure out how to apply switch-reference markers to a headless relative clause just by being immensely powerful general-purpose rule-induction engines (but ones that nevertheless struggle with elementary calculations of probability).
Meanwhile, on an island east of Java, another, more distantly
related species of hominids may have survived a while longer:
Homo floresiensis. Given that they're reconstructed as
metre-tall reclusive hole-dwellers, naturally they've been
hobbits – but if the local folklore
Ebu Gogo is based on a grain of truth, it implies they
may have had language as well. Alas, the evidence is too thin
to form a basis for speculation (it's thoroughly debatable whether
the remains are even non-sapiens); and besides, writing a
conlang called Hobbitese would be a good way of attracting a