Stories tagged speech


Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.
Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.Courtesy leted
Imagine how a Neanderthal would have sounded. Do it.

Maybe something along the lines of Darth Gorilla? That was my thought. Anyway, hold that sound in your head… and forget it. Here, for the first time in 30,000 years, you can hear a single syllable of Neanderthal speech. Click here, and listen to a voice from the depths of time…

Um, what? Let’s try that again. The ghosts of the distant past whisper their secrets to us

I see… Well that was a little… underwhelming. Underwhelming and vaguely familiar… What could it possibly be that I’m thinking of? What could I have heard in my short life that might sound anything like a might Neanderthal? What indeed?

Well, like it or not, that mind-blowing audio simulation is the product of a recent study by an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Based on skeletal remains, Dr. Robert McCarthy has reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate what their voices might have sounded like.

While it’s likely that Neanderthals could speak (there’s some evidence that they used pigments to decorate themselves, which suggests at least basic communication), McCarthy says they would have sounded a “bit different,” and would have been unable to produce “quantal vowels.”

Quantal vowels are the basis for much of human speech, and allow, for example, us to distinguish a word like “beat” from a similar word, like “bit.” So here’s the same type of simulation with a human voice producing an “E” sound.

And, once again, here’s the stentorian bellow of the Neanderthal, attempting to produce the same sound. The Neanderthals must have lived in a confusing world, with fate being put in their shoes, and sandwiches full of mate.

Even though people would probably have a difficult time understanding each other without the use of quantal vowels, many anthropologists believe that the anatomy of the throat and mouth is less important for language than the “neuronal control over it.” Even if Neanderthals were physically unable to speak quite like modern humans, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they were less effective communicators. In fact, Neanderthals have been shown to share the gene “FOXP2” with humans—something other primates don’t possess. When a person is missing a copy of FOXP2, they suffer from language and speech disorders, leading some to believe that its presence in Neanderthals is an indicator of the capacity for speech.


new study finds that talking to someone helps keep the mind sharp and, in lab experiments, boosts test scores. My apologies to teenage girls everywhere.

And speaking of whales, researchers in Australia are trying to decode whale talk. Eavesdropping on thousands of hours of humpback whale sounds, they have found certain calls occur only in certain social situations.

(Liza had a post on research into humpback whale speech last year.)


Talk to me, baby: Infants begin learning speech from their first month.  Photo by Torbein on
Talk to me, baby: Infants begin learning speech from their first month. Photo by Torbein on

No, not by crying and pooping, but by recognizing speech. Researchers in Chicago have written a computer program that learns language sounds the same way a baby does. Exposed to tape recorded speech in English and Japanese, the computer learned to recognize all the basic vowel sounds in the language at the same pace as a baby.

This supports the theory of categorical perception. The human brain, faced with an infinite variety of sensory information, reduces that complexity by grouping similar phenomena into a manageable number of categories. Research has shown that babies can distinguish subtle variations in spoken sounds but, by their first birthday, have figured out what sounds occur in their native language. Any other sounds are lumped together with whatever native sound is closest, thus reducing the aural universe to a few manageable chunks.

(Once established, these categories can persist throughout life. My girlfriend, born and raised in Indonesia, say “dee” instead of “the” – not because she can’t make the “th” sound (if asked, she can), but because there is no “th” in her native language. The closest they have is “d,” and so every English “th” is lumped into that category. My few pathetic attempts to speak Indonesian have generated similar issues in reverse, as I substitute the English sounds I know into foreign words that are actually pronounced slightly differently.)

The computer research indicates that the human brain can do something very complicated, like learn a language, from just a few simple rules. Specific instructions do not have to be hard-wired in. This has important ramifications for understanding human intelligence, as well as for creating artificial intelligence.

It does not, however, explain why teenage girls talk so much. (Shameless plug.)