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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
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
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
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
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
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