Is It Neander-TAL or Neander-THAL?

By Bridget Alex | August 25, 2016 12:40 pm

(Credit: Gianfranco Goria/Flickr)

Here’s the deal: you can write or say Neanderthal or Neandertal, but you should only write Homo neanderthalensis and say “Homo neander-TAL-ensis”.

I promise that will make sense by the end of this.

The name comes from Neander Valley, Germany, where the first recognized Neanderthal fossil was found in 1856 (other Neanderthal bones had been discovered earlier, but people didn’t know what to make of them).

Based on this fossil, geologist William King defined the species Homo neanderthalensis in 1864, and Neanderthals became the first extinct group of humans to be granted a formal species name. At the time, thal was the region’s word for valley: Neander Thal, Neander Valley.

In the early twentieth century thal changed to tal when the government standardized spelling across Germany. But regardless of how people wrote it, thal/tal in German was always pronounced as English speakers would say “tall.” And regardless of how Germans spell the word valley, the species name remains as King established it: Homo neanderthalensis.

The colloquial spelling—Neanderthal or Neandertal—is up to you.

The Cool Crowd

Daniel Lieberman, Harvard paleoanthropologist, explains, “it is confusing to spell the species one way formally but another way colloquially, and thus I stick with good old-fashioned ‘thal. That said, it is not a very important point. If some folks want to write Neandertal, that’s just fine with me.”

John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at University of Wisconsin, uses “Neandertal” on his popular blog to distinguish the respectable extinct humans from the people conjured by the informal meaning of Neanderthal: brutish, dimwitted present-day humans.

But more importantly, “all the cool kids write it with a ‘T’,” according to Hawks.

And the colloquial pronunciation?

Most English-language dictionaries allow for both. It’s just a matter of if you think that a word derived from a foreign place name should be pronounced the original way. Author Robert J. Sawyer likens saying “Neander-TAL” to calling Paris, “Par-ee.”

“Doing so would be considered pretentious in most contexts,” he writes.

So to recap: When referring to the formal species name, you should write Homo neanderthalensis and say “Homo neander-TAL-ensis”. When keeping it casual, you can write/say Neanderthal or Neandertal. If you opt for the latter, some people will think you’re cool.

Others will think you’re pretentious. And most people — including experts — really don’t care. But if you’re still lost, you can’t go wrong if you follow this handy flowchart:


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • polistra24

    The same th creates a worse problem in Rothschild. Most Americans pronounce this, and think of it, as Roth’s Child. In fact it’s Rot Schild, Red Shield. But the same th DOESN’T create a problem in Maria Theresa Thaler. American coin fanciers pronounce it Taler, probably because it’s recognized as the source of Dollar.

    • Bee

      Same problem with “Bethe”. It’s actually not so difficult – the English sound “th” just doesn’t exist in German. Zat’s why all Germans have zis funny accent 😉

  • Randall Bart

    Saying neandertalensis sounds pretentious.

  • Bee

    I want to object on your statement that the German word “Tal” is pronounced like the English word “tall”. It’s pronounced more like “tahl” (long, open “a”, like if someone stomps on your foot).

    • Brian Noury

      Germans pronounce everything like someone is stomping on their foot.

      • cybersaurusrex


  • Lyngvyst

    Just a little correction if you do not mind. Thal/Tal – English approximation would be not to say it like in “tall” (as most people in English pronounce “tall” rounded to o, just like in “war”, “gall” etc.), but this German word is pronounced taal, with long aa as in “car”, not rounded to O.

  • Francine Robertson

    Who cares…we know what the word means…lets move on

    • PulSamsara

      I care. My last name is Thalheimer.

  • Francine Robertson

    Maybe time should be spent trying to figure out how neaderthal became modern day humans…hmmm???

  • Willa Spatz Cartwright

    It’s hard to imagine why this is even an issue …

  • roscommonguy

    How thal were the Neandertalls?

  • Fritz Kohlhaas

    Thal is the old German spelling.

  • SoonerTrojan

    To keep others from being confused, I usually pronounce it “caveman.”


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