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Suppose some recent hominins such as Neanderthal had a spoken language (currently, as far as I'm aware, we are uncertain if they did, but suppose we knew they did). If this were the case, would it be possible to uncover their influence on known language families through linguistics, or is the time gap so large that any influence would be essentially lost in the noise?

  • It's impossible to find a thing if you don't know what you're looking for. – Yellow Sky Apr 2 '14 at 19:18
  • @YellowSky If someone asks you to help them find their red ball do you tell them "I can't help you; I've never seen your ball before"? We may not have first-hand experience of a non-human language, but surely there are ways we could narrow down what we are looking for, unless as I said it is too deep in time to be recoverable. – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 19:21
  • For example, if we found certain qualities of a subset of a language that differed drastically from the normal construction for that language, and no other influencing factors are known, and the range of the speakers of that language overlapped the range of the Neanderthal, it might provide some interesting insights. I don't know if this level of detail is possible in linguistic analysis though, that's why I'm asking this question. – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 19:25
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    English has acquired a range of words from non-human languages: baa, cock-a-doodle-doo, meow, moo, oink, quack, woof. Oh is it not April 1 any more? – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 10:54
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    "Results suggest that the evolutionary origins of human laughter can be traced back at least 16 million years to the last common ancestor of humans and apes" .Do apes laugh. Researchers have found signs of 2 genes that Neanderthals and modern humans might have shared: one that's thought to confer language ability, and another that makes adults unable to digest lactose in milk.(+Did humans-N'thals interbreed?) Scientists Finish First Draft Of Neanderthal Genome – ARi Apr 9 '14 at 16:48
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The proposal is complete science-fiction. Not only is it too far in time (and it is, by almost an order of magnitude, as the proto-language we know the most about was maybe spoken in 3500BC whereas the most studied recent Hominid group, Homo neanderthalensis, disappeared roughly 35,000 years ago) but the correct analogy would be to ask someone who is completely colorblind to find a slightly reddish ball in a mass of orange balls: the best we can do at present is trace (with great difficulty) the variation of Neanderthal's DNA in human populations. From this kind of data, it would already be extremely hard to get non-trivial results on the movements of populations leading to this distribution of Neanderthal DNA (especially as East Asian populations have the highest rate of Neanderthal DNA, quite counterintuitively, see for instance here). Of course, tracing the evolution of a delicate and transient cognitive and cultural phenomenon such as language is immensely harder than tracing population movements (for which we might at least hope to find archeological evidence). Not to mention the fact that questions on mutual influences between well-recognized family of languages (such as indo-european and uralic for instance) are already far beyond the scientific consensus on the historical evolution of languages.

To recap: even considerably easier problems both in the study of the influence of other hominid groups on Homo Sapiens and on past mutual influences in languages are currently totally out of reach. The project described is presently about as scientifically credible as reaching the speed of light with a steam engine.

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  • Thanks, that is what I expected, but since I don't have a lot of experience with linguistics I thought I'd ask! – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 20:08
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    You may rest assured that no non-human language influenced human language, because there is no known non-human language. – jlawler Apr 2 '14 at 20:09
  • @jlawler I don't think we can be so confident of that: news.discovery.com/human/evolution/… – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 20:11
  • @jlawler Unless you are referring to the fact that Neanderthals may be described as human, in which case I would clarify that by human I mean Homo sapiens sapiens. – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 20:12
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    @jlawler, "You may rest assured that no non-human language influenced human language, because there is no known non-human language." I'm not following your logic here... if there were such an language which had influenced human language, would we necessarily know about it? – dainichi Apr 3 '14 at 6:46
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I believe it is very much the case. Just listen to the way some people bark. (belated April first contribution)

... and more seriously, it is most likely that some animal cries (is that language) originated human words by imitation. They can first enter the language via onomatopoeias, and may later evolve on their own.

The best known example today is "tweet", but "bark" or "tchirp" could probably qualify too. Though the origin of "bark" could be different.

Regarding real language, such as may have been spoken by Neanderthal people, it is probably too far away in time, as was said.

Then there is the distinct possibility that intelligent communication requires structures that are universal, not because we are all similarly wired, but because that is what communication entails (which would then cause us to be similarly wired).

If a non-human specie evolved language independently of us, it could well be that their language structure would not surprise too much human linguists. Then, if such beings had influenced human languages 5 or 10 thousands years ago, possibly less, it might not even be detectable.

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  • "Bark" is not onomatopoeia in English, it's just a verb like "speak" or "shout", and it can be traced back to proto-Indo-European. It's not "the dog went 'bark bark'" but "the dog barked" or "the dog went 'woof'". – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 14:39
  • @hippietrail I took the examples on the web. I did not say "bark" or "tchirp" are onomatopoeia, but that they could be derived from one. Many turn into verbs or nouns. Of course I cannot mumble this, or hiss it in your ears, even less murmur it, because you are too far away. However the etymology of bark could also trace it to older words for "break",... I have no opinion of my own on this. – babou Apr 3 '14 at 14:52
  • Actually I could be wrong. I'm looking it up on etymonline again and it doesn't say what I thought it said. They do say it was of echoic origin back in Proto-Germanic. It turns out I got my info from the English Wiktionary ... – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 15:08
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    @hippietrail As I said in my answer, the origin of "bark" as a verk is not clear. BTW what do they mean by "of echoic origin". I do not know this technical use of "echoic". – babou Apr 3 '14 at 15:28
  • This use of "echoic" is pretty common in etymologies for describing words that started out as onomatopoeia, ie "echoing" sounds with the human voice. – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 15:44

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