The sounds of prehistoric speech

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4 Scopus citations


Evidence is reviewed for widespread phonological and phonetic tendencies in contemporary languages. The evidence is based largely on the frequency of sound types in word lists and in phoneme inventories across the world's languages. The data reviewed point to likely tendencies in the languages of the Upper Palaeolithic. These tendencies include the reliance on specific nasal and voiceless stop consonants, the relative dispreference for posterior voiced consonants and the use of peripheral vowels. More tenuous hypotheses related to prehistoric languages are also reviewed. These include the propositions that such languages lacked labiodental consonants and relied more heavily on vowels, when contrasted to many contemporary languages. Such hypotheses suggest speech has adapted to subtle pressures that may in some cases vary across populations. This article is part of the theme issue 'Reconstructing prehistoric languages'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200195
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1824
StatePublished - May 10 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Upper Palaeolithic
  • consonants
  • phonemes
  • prehistoric speech
  • vowels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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