And the vowel was made flesh

Neanderthals have been the subject of a lot of attention and research in recent years, some of which has focused on their capacity for speech. What their capabilities were in this regard remains an open question, one I’m not going to get into here, but I would like to share a related item.*

The following quote is from a letter by J. Fremlen titled “The Demese ef the Ne’enderthels: Wes Lengege e Fecter?” It was published in Science magazine in February 1975, in response (I think) to the idea that Neanderthals’ anatomy restricted their vowel sounds and that this in turn imposed significant constraints on their vocal range:

…et seems emprebeble theth ther speech wes enedeqwete bekes ef the leck ef the three vewels seggested. the kemplexete ef speech depends en the kensenents, net en the vewels, es ken be seen frem the generel kemprehensebelete ef thes letter.

Most internet users are familiar with the text that begins: “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy…” (see the discussion at Language Hat), but the uni-vowel text above is comparatively obscure. Rewritten with correct vowels: “…it seems improbable that their speech was inadequate because of the lack of the three vowels suggested. The complexity of speech depends on the consonants, not on the vowels, as can be seen from the general comprehensibility of this letter.”

The greater weight of consonants in speech is reflected in their relative stability. Tremendous shifts in vowel sounds have occurred, most notably during the Great Vowel Shift of the 15C–18C; there’s also much vowel-sound variety between contemporary dialects. Simeon Potter, in Our Language, used anatomical metaphors to convey the relative stabilities of the two main speech sound categories:

Consonants are, in general, the more permanent elements in a language: they are, as it were, the skeleton. Vowels and diphthongs are, so to speak, the flesh and blood.

And, as we’ve seen, vowels can emerge not just from flesh and blood but from silicone, plaster, metal, and sheer ingenuity.


* First encountered in an endnote in Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind.

5 Responses to And the vowel was made flesh

  1. John Cowan says:

    Voltaire’s wisecrack that “in etymology the consonants count for very little and vowels for nothing at all” has a shred of truth when applied to Indo-European languages like English, but it is far from being universal. In the vast Austronesian language family, spoken from Madagascar to Easter Island, the five vowels characteristic of the family often remain unchanged right back to Proto-Austronesian, while the consonants change around repeatedly.

  2. Stewart says:

    Nicely done, Stan! Really enjoyed this.

  3. Stan says:

    John: Thanks for the interesting note. My focus was (and is) implicitly on English, but it’s instructive and useful to compare with other languages, and I know very little about the Austronesian family except what little I’ve read in general linguistic texts.

    Stewart: Thank you — glad you liked it.

  4. Jim says:

    Another non-IE example – tones matter more than consonants in Mandarin, within reason. You can mix up the retroflex initials with the plain affricates/sibilants – zh/ch/sh – z/c/s – as long as the tones and vowels are right, with minimal loss of intelligibility. Getting them “wrong” isn’t even that marked, it’s just means that you’re not a Beijinger.

    Likewise you can fluff the n/ng distinction on finals and get by. People from Shanghai are prone to doing this; they assimilate the finals to the vowels. Hong Kong people have a hard time distinguishing initial n and l. If the tones and vowels are right and the context is reasonable, people just drive on.

    Your handwriting counts for more as a gauge of your level of culture and education.

  5. Stan says:

    Jim: I knew a little about the significance of tones in Mandarin, but not much; I appreciate the detail.

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