Neandertal or Neanderthal?

1 minute read

I've had a few queries this week asking why I write "Neandertal" instead of "Neanderthal."

Probably most readers are familiar with the issue. For the background on the problem, I recommend the FAQ at TalkOrigins:

The first such fossil was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Thal, or "Neander Valley" in German, and became known as "Neanderthal Man". In 1904, German spelling was regularized to be more consistent with pronunciation, and "thal" became "tal". In 1952 Henri Vallois proposed that it should be spelt as the Germans spell it, and the "-tal" spelling has become widely used since then. The "-thal" spelling persists most strongly in England.

Anybody who writes much about Neander-types has to confront this issue. Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has a thoughtful discussion where he concludes that "Neanderthal" with a "TH" is the most popular and least likely to confuse.

There is surely truth to that -- after all, I'm sure I wouldn't have readers writing in asking why I wrote "Neanderthal" with a "TH."

But I have a couple of reasons why I prefer my "Neandertal" with a "T":

  1. William King was the first to make a taxonomic name for the group we call Neandertals. He named it Homo neanderthalensis -- that's "neanderthalensis" with a "TH". By the almighty rules of taxonomic nomenclature, that's the name our poor heroes are stuck with (instead of Schwalbe's vastly better, but slightly later, Homo primigenius, for instance). So using "Neandertal" with a "T" is an act of taxonomic subversion. Let's call it a pique.
  2. "Neanderthal" with a "TH" has an ordinary English meaning that is well understood by everybody -- it means "stupid," "clumsy" and "brutish" all in one! Since that's not ordinarily what I mean when I'm describing Neandertals, I take advantage of the unfamiliarity of the alternate spelling to get people to think about them in a different way.

Now, I know that some folks like their hominids Hobbesian, and the "TH" surely fits that bill. Personally, I would say that the "T" works when it startles, but fails when it confuses. I like the aesthetic, but I myself may have to change it for a trade book. I'll be happy when we can stop talking about them as misunderstood and start talking about how we understand them.

But never forget: all the cool kids write it with a "T".