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.