Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rovbert Sawyer on Neandertals

Robert Sawyer has something to say about Neandertal speech today. It's based on a recent study making a claim that Neandertals, essentially, had "inferior" speech capacities because they somehow couldn't pronounce a long "e" sound. He proudly asserts that he had a long interview with Philip Lieberman, a prominent paleoanthropologist/archaeologist, who has for years made similar claims.

This study came out in the news last week. About all I can say about it is, the people who did the study are just basically following Lieberman's lead here(and IMO he is really out of date on this, considering some of the genetic and other studies that have been coming in), and what's worse, I think they're clutching at straws to show just how supposedly "different" they were. I have a lot of respect for Robert Sawyer, and he writes good, solid sf. Unfortunately, although I really enjoyed the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, I find it absolutely incredible that, when he wanted to learn about Neandertals for his story, he basically incorporated the views of only one "side" in the Neandertal "controversies", and, in his first book, Hominids, basically dismissed anything that didn't agree with this "side". I don't like that. He may really think "that's the way they were", but instead of doing thorough research, he basically followed the most popular "side", and constructed a parallel universe in which Neandertals were the "dominant" speices. I understand, from a writer's point of view, why he might be tempted to do this, but my enjoyment of his work here was dimmed somewhat by this lack of even the pretense of any sort of neutrality. But I really think it's even worse that he agrees with these "straw-cllutchers" about Neandertal language capacities(or the lack thereof). Lacking a supposed ability to form a long "e" wouldn't preclude a really complex language. They would just lack certain sounds. And jeez. There are languages that lack sounds which English speakers take for granted. By the same token, English speakers can't make certain sounds that Russians would consider vowels! I've heard English speakers try, and while I never got very good at it, I did have a good ear at one time. Most English speakers don't. At least not for some of the Russian sounds I'm thinking of.

I should add, that while different languages often have differences in consonants, they may also have differences in "length" of vowels as well. English has an "ee" sound and an "e" sound, and it is this, I think, that the researchers were referring to. Some languages may not, though. Don't these researchers know this? But then, it's not just Neandertal language capacities that are contested, it's just about everything. And this, despite a lot of contrary archaeological evidence that suggests a good deal of competence and complexity. As a writer, I would think Sawyer would at least understand these things on an intuitive level, and also understand that the most "widely held" and "popular" theories about human origins(or anything else, for that matter), may be, if not wrong, at least a lot more complex than many people want to believe.

I don't want to keep going on and on about Neandertals, though they are a vital part of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. I am, after all, a writer, not a scientist. However, it pretty much just drives me wild, when people like Sawyer, who are intelligent enough to know better, reach for the most simiplistic explanations for rather complex sets of abilities, to "explain" something, even if it's a fictional something. So, I shoot off a blog piece here. I will probably be doing this for quite some time, given the 150-0ld nature of this particular scientific argument. Which is too bad, because I'd really rather do more blogging about my writing and my own creative growth --- and maybe squeeze a little something in about medieval life, as well.
Anne G

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