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Is it Neanderthal or Neandertal?

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2001 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

So is it Neanderthal or Neandertal?

Both spellings are correct, and both are in common usage, even among paleoanthropologists.

The fossil this type of hominid is named for was found in 1856, in a valley near Düsseldorf. The place was then called Neanderthal — thal meaning "valley," and "Neander" being a Greek version of "Neumann," the surname of the fellow after whom the valley was named.

Early in the 20th century, the German government regularized spelling across all parts of their nation, and "thal" and "tal," both of which were in use up to that time in various parts of the country, became just "tal." So it's clear that the place that used to be called Neanderthal is now only correctly spelled Neandertal. [Hominids]

But what about the fossil hominid? Should we therefore rename it Neandertal, as well?

Some say yes. But there's a problem: scientific names are cast in stone once coined and, for all time, this type of hominid will be known in technical literature with a "th" spelling, either as Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (depending on whether one classifies it as a separate species from us, or merely a subspecies). It does seem awkward to spell the "neanderthal" part differently in the scientific and English names.

Meanwhile, those who favor the use of the spelling "Neandertal man" are notably silent when the topic of Peking man comes up; there's no movement to change that name to "Beijing man," even though the city's name is always spelled Beijing in English these days.

I checked the latest editions of six major English-language dictionaries: The American Heritage English Dictionary, The Encarta World English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Tor's house standard), The Oxford English Dictionary, Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, and Webster's New World Dictionary. All accept both spellings.

And what about pronunciation? Some purists contend that regardless of whether you spell it -tal or -thal, you should pronounce it with a hard-T sound, since both t and th have always denoted that in German.

Maybe so, but I've heard many paleoanthropologists say it with an English th sound (as in thought). And of the six dictionaries I checked, all of them except the OED allow both pronunciations (with the OED accepting only -tal). The argument that English speakers should pronounce it the way German speakers do seems to imply that we should also call the capital of France "par-ee," rather than "pair-is," and yet doing so would be considered pretentious in most contexts.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice. In the extensive collection of research materials I consulted in creating my novel Hominids, the -thal spelling outnumbers the -tal by better than 2-to-1 (even in recent technical literature), so I've settled on the original spelling, Neanderthal — which you may pronounce whichever way you wish.

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