Before Babel: Could the first human language be reconstructed?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by ElectricFetus, Jan 28, 2013.

  1. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    Watch this:


    Or read transcript:

    So do you think it is possible that the first language, the ancestor to all languages, could be reconstructed?
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  3. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    I am not even sure where we could stop and conclude "this is the first language". All you would know is that you cannot detect anything earlier. Imagine that language did not start all at once, but developed over many millennia (or even longer periods). Given the evidence that Neanderthals had language (for example, they had our variant of the FOXP2 gene), that suggests that language pre-dates humans and existed at least since the time of our last common ancestor with the neanderthals (perhaps Heidelberg man, 400,000 years ago). If that is correct the first language pre-dates Homo Sapiens. Perhaps Heidelbergensis had only a few words and simple syntax, but how would reliably go back that far?

    I do think we can go back to reconstruct some of Proto-Indo-European, but that has been a long and complex process...and that is only perhaps 6000 years old. How far back do we need to go to get to the "first" language.

    So I am skeptical.
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  5. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    Well I agree that 400,000 years is too far back to track, but consider Nostratic language Super family: if confirmed would date back passed the last ice age, and covers all of Europe, most of Asia, North Africa and northern America.
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  7. wellwisher Banned Banned

    Language progression is based on subjectivity, since any sound can be used to expressed any object, action or modifier. This is why there are so many languages. There is no direct cause and effect sound association, rather language is subjective. After a language is created, then there is an approximation to cultural cause and effect; cat is that little furry thing. But In the beginning, we could have called cat ; toordwaedo and that would work for group memorization.

    The bible tells about the ego-centricity of building a tower to heaven (6o ft). This ego-centricity; subjective differential, would be different from the casual integration of natural, would also try to separate language into kings and clans; everyone babbling so they no longer understand each other. The rock star may coin a phrase; he's bad. If the sound is pleasant to the ear, the youth will accept and copy this babel and separate from formal language. School has grammar and language rules to prevent a cascading Babel affect.

    The original language, I would guess, would be more limited because it would more closely reflect cause and effect. Cat would be meow, since this is the closest sound that defines the cause and effect reality of cat. The word cat has nothing to do with natural reality other than by convention. Say you had people from every modern language who only speak their own language. The original language would be universal and would get through to everybody in spite of hundreds of subjective systems; charades with casual sounds.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In fact, in both Chinese and ancient Egyptian, the word for "cat" is mao/mau.

    Cats were domesticated in Egypt, and slowly spread to other parts of the world. (Like dogs, all housecats are descended from a single ancient population, not domesticated in multiple places and times. Although the dog has diverged greatly from the wolf and is now regarded as a separate subspecies, the domestic cat and the wild cat are too similar to distinguish genetically. The first dogs arose in Mesopotamia around 12KYA when humans began living in farming villages surrounded by heaps of tasty garbage, the first housecats in Egypt around 4-5KYA when granaries were first erected and the rodents got out of hand.)

    The origin of the Latin word felis is unknown, but it was also used for the marten, and therefore may have been extended to the feral cat populations (also small hunters of rodents) that congregated around granaries and seaports and were enthusiastically welcomed for their pest-control services.. The origin of the word "cat" is also misty, but it's probably borrowed from the Afro-Asiatic language of some other people who lived near Egypt.
  9. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member

    I was doing research relevant to this topic in order to determine when the common ancestor of all human languages, were such a thing to, in fact, exist, could have been spoken, when I came across an astounding estimate of the time of existence of the Human Most Recent Common Ancestor, that being between 2,000YBP and 5,000YBP. How is that possible? How could his/her genes have gotten to the Americas and to Australia, which were populated long before that time, and with the land bridges to both having been breached long before that time?

    The paper is:

    On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans
    Douglas L. T. Rohde
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    November 11, 2003

    and here's the abstract:

    Questions concerning the common ancestors of all
    present-day humans have received considerable attention
    of late in both the scientific and lay communities. Princi-
    pally, this attention has focused on ‘Mitochondrial Eve,’
    defined to be the woman who lies at the confluence of our
    maternal ancestry lines, and who is believed to have lived
    100,000–200,000 years ago. More recent attention has
    been given to our common paternal ancestor, ‘Y Chromo-
    some Adam,’ who may have lived 35,000–89,000 years
    ago. However, if we consider not just our all-female and
    all-male lines, but our ancestors along all parental lines,
    it turns out that everyone on earth may share a common
    ancestor who is remarkably recent.
    This study introduces a large-scale, detailed computer
    model of recent human history which suggests that the
    common ancestor of everyone alive today very likely lived
    between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago. Furthermore, the
    model indicates that nearly everyone living a few thou-
    sand years prior to that time is either the ancestor of no
    one or of all living humans.

    And here's the link:, On the common ancestors of all living humans
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Makes no sense at all. Cavalli-Sforza has done the most recent genetic analysis of our species, and ended up with a quite detailed map of human migrations.

    China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and India were already well-developed civilizations 5KYA. We have actual written historical records beginning not long after that time.

    But the Western Hemisphere and Australia are this guy's biggest problems. Australia, by the way, was almost surely not reached by a land bridge 60KYA. Sea levels were much lower at that point in the ice age, but not so low as to walk from Singapore to Australia. Nonetheless, Paleolithic boating technology was quite adequate to cross the straits which were much narrower than today.

    There were certainly a few adventurers who made transcontinental journeys between cultures. Kennewick Man, for instance: a European buried in what is now the state of Washingon in the 8th millennium BCE. But there were no major migrations.

    Besides, we've got all kinds of genetic markers that trace our paths. That was the focus of Dr. Cavalli-Sforza's work. He even found people at the very southern tip of India who share a few markers with the Native Australians. Apparently a few people bailed out on the journey, and their distant descendants were still there when the second wave out of Africa 50KYA came through their territory.

    I'll wait for the peer review of this paper!
  11. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    Now now it is possible the vocabulary sharing goes back further then we think.

    A bigger question is do all our languages descend from a common ancestor? This is not biological genetics, languages mutate much faster so it very unlikely we can accurate track back to an ancestor languages because modern languages have mutated so much that not a word is left from the ancestor. But what if added to that languages emerged spontaneously, take the story of Romulus and Remus: two wild twin raised by wolves, would they not generated a language all their own? Of course we know that story is bunk because latin is well related to other languages, but there are a handful of languages that appear to have no relation to any other known languages and yet they came from populations of people that could not have divided off from other people too long ago: the Basque language for example. Could it have been founded by something as bizarre as a wild child event and had to be create from scratch? Could an amoral scientist not buy up some adopted babies, raise them by deaf nurses on some island somewhere and see if they would spontaneously generate their own language?
  12. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    This is nonsensical. That is exactly what m-Eve or y-Adam does, considers all the ancestors. If there were a person (or, more properly, the mother or father of that person, male or female) that existed only a few thousand years ago that was a common ancestor of all people today, then the father or mother of that person would be either the y-Adam or m-Eve. But y-Adam or m-Eve is shown to be many thousands of years earlier (by genetic clock estimates).
  13. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member

    Actually more than a hundred thousand years earlier. And remember that there are still tribes in the Amazonian rainforest that have yet to meet a single person who can trace their pre-neolithic ancestry to other continents. How did somebody's genes produce them only 2K to 5K YBP? He would have had to have been a serial rapist to beat the band, with a Bronze Age (or Neolithic, should the genetic influence have gone the other way across the two wide cricks) 747 at his disposal.

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    Last edited: Feb 26, 2013
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    We may never know the answer to this question, a possibility that makes every linguist weep. The problem is that languages change over the centuries and absolutely everything about them can turn over and become unrecognizable: vocabulary, phonetics, grammar, syntax.

    But more than that, the basic world view of the community can change. Chinese has no tenses, and I attribute that to a people who have had a more-or-less continuous government for more than 2,000 years. From their point of view the past is pretty much like the future! But were they always like that? Did their language once have inflections that we could use to relate it to other languages outside the Sino-Tibetan family, but they're lost now? The Hopi language presents such a strange world view that it's difficult for Westerners to master. We just don't think like that.

    Linguists used to talk about the "five-thousand year curtain." If you go back much farther than that, a language could change absolutely everything, so if we didn't have intermediate forms we'd have no clues to guess that the modern one evolved from the older one.

    The Nostratus hypothesis (from Latin nos, nostra "we, our") says that all languages evolved from a single ancestor. People have been testing it for three decades, using massively-parallel computing. In the 1980s they announced their victory, presenting a list of about fifty words in twenty of the world's best-recorded, supposedly unrelated languages (Afroasiatic, Austronesian, Dravidian, Finno-Ugric, Indo-European, Japonic, Mon-Khmer, Mongolic, Na-Dene, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, etc.) that were "obviously" cognates--having traced them cybernetically through quite reasonable paradigms of phonetic shift. It was good work!

    Unfortunately, the next generation of bigger and faster massively-parallel processors demonstrated that a set of fifty supposed cognates was not enough! Pure chance could have delivered exactly that many "apparent cognates," and even more! So we were back where we started. We can't build language families that go back more than 5,000 years.

    But in this new century, that curtain has been pushed much farther back. The Na-Dene family of North American languages (Navajo, Tlingit, etc.) was found to be related to the Yenisei language of Siberia. (This finding has not been universally accepted so I may have to edit this post five years from now.

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    ) As you would expect, there is little or no common vocabulary, but the inflections and other bits of grammar and syntax are startlingly similar. When we note that the people of northwestern North America have been separated from the Siberians for about 8,000 years (this was a second migration: the people of Central and South America have been here for about twice that long, and there's evidence of an earlier migration from Europe more than 20KYA), we've opened that curtain a little wider.

    But that's still nothing compared to the age of our species. I've seen more than one anthropologist postulate that the technology of spoken language was probably invented around 70KYA, because at that point in the archeological record there is an explosion of new kinds of activities that imply a level of organization that simply could not have been maintained by animals without speech, no matter how intelligent. Perhaps the most amazing of these activities was the first successful migration out of Africa around 60KYA. That group of adventurers from the San tribe traveled all the way to Australia where they finally found good weather and abundant food, and eventually populated the entire continent.

    If language is indeed 70,000 years old, I don't think any linguist in his right mind expects to trace all of the living languages back to it. It could have been invented in multiple times and places. What argues against that hypothesis is the evidence of so many other technologies that did not arise independently. Most technologies are 99% ideas and only 1% artifacts, so they can be carried from village to village pretty quickly. Language is 100% cerebral, so it would have spread like lightning. Every tribe would have picked it up from its neighbors, even if they were hostile, simply by observing them using it, slapping their foreheads, and thinking, "What a great idea!"

    Sure, the human population was not spread out as widely as it is today, but still Africa is a pretty big place. Language could have been invented in two places, or more. Nonetheless, if this anthropological perspective is true, it makes all non-African, non-Australian languages related in one big family. Actually, since all of our ancestors came over in one migration, which just happened to also be a group of San adventurers, the Australian languages could also be related to ours.

    Latin is the hub of the Italic subgroup of the Western branch of the Indo-European language family, closely related to Greek and the progenitors of the Celtic and Germanic subgroups. More distantly related to the members of the Eastern branch, most of which are in the Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic subgroups, and to a few oddballs with no obvious path of ancestry like Albanian and Armenian.

    DNA analysis shows that the Basques are not related to the Indo-European and Finno-Ugric peoples who essentially define the name "European." It's been reasonably postulated that they might be the last descendants of the Cro-Magnon, who had Europe to themselves as a Paleolithic paradise for about 20,000 years until the Neolithic Indo-European tribes arrived and took over, with their superior technologies, most notably agriculture.

    What goes around, comes around. The Cro-Magnon had done the same thing to the Neanderthals--a different species but close enough that they interbred.

    Sounds like the plot on next week's "Nikita."

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  15. wellwisher Banned Banned

    We have two sides of the brain, with language processed in the left brain. The left brain is differential and would be the side of the brain that differentiated the original language into new words, dialects, and other languages. The right brain is more spatial and creative would be the likely source of the original common language.

    In terms of evolution, the evolution of language, from simple to wide diversity suggests that humans were originally more right brained (instinctive) with much less language diversity. As the left brain became more developed (humans diversify) the instinctive unity is replaced by ego-centricity (differential) and the unity of language began to differentiate into the variety of language. Modern language adds words faster since we are a left brained by education with less connection to the right brain. Science is pure left brain and adds more words (to describe discoveries) than any other aspect.

    A good question is, what would a 3-D or spatial language of the right brain look like?

    For a language to be spatial or 3-D it should work with all humans. We can rule out spoken language, since sound is how languages differ. There are dozens of sounds we could use to say cat, which means left brain. The original right brain 3-D language would have been visual based. For example, the entire world will use a similar clock, regardless of language. Although we all see the same thing on the wall, we may call the time of day using a variety of sounds, even in any given language; it can be 9:15, quarter after nine, fifteen after nine, etc.

    Interestingly males are more visual and female more verbal. So the movement from the original 3-D unified visual language to a diversified verbal based language, would have been connected to females.
  16. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    First off the origins of the Basque are controversial. Second so is it Neanderthal interbreeding: with only 1-4% Neanderthal DNA sequences in modern Eurasians it is statistically possible that by random chance that modern Eurasian would have those few sequences which make them appear to have acquired them from Neanderthals.

    As for a right side brain language look no further then ASL!
  17. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member

    That's not really correct. Nostratic only covers certain families, and is sometimes called "Mitiese" because most of the related families have personal pronouns descended from mi- for the first person and ti- for the second person, such as English me and thee and Quebec Cree nizgawa ("my wife") and tizgawa ("thy wife"). (And notice the Cree word for "wife" or "woman", zgawa, is the source of the English term squaw, meaning "Indian Woman".)

    Actually, Greek is much more closely related to the Eastern I-E languages, except for the fact that it lies on the Western side of the Centum/Satem divide, which, in my opinion, shows that the true significance of that divide is not synchronic, but diachronic, as it shows that, by the time that sound change occurred, the core I-E cultural area had begun to break up. In other words, it's the first major core-area innovation not shared by all core-area cultures. The fact that Iranian languages have long been spoken from Afghanistan to the Ukraine in historical times seems, to me, suggestive of the idea that these languages represent the residuum of the original core I-E cultural area.
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2013
  18. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member


    Perhaps my favorite example of core-area breakup:

    The Iroquoian languages, spoken in Upstate New York, Southern Ontario and Lower Michigan, have a word for "Great River", which is Genessee. All over this region, you will find that the biggest river in the area is called Genessee. Now, it just so happens that comparative linguistics has shown that Old Iroquoian t became dzh (spelled "g" in English) before high or mid fronted vowels a few centuries ago. Which means that the biggest river in the area of one group that split away from Upstate New York a few centuries ago, prior to that sound change, is called, not Genessee, but Tennessee.

    But, we only know of that sound change due to the fact that the split-off language, Cherokee, still exists. How many other languages and dialects that could have given us a much clearer picture of Old Iroquoian have simply passed out of existence, leaving us bereft of the information that those speech-forms could have offered us?

    My view of reconstructed proto-languages is that the people that actually spoke that language would view us, could we go back in time, as speaking their language with a REALLY bad accent, and with no nuanced understanding of idiomatic expressions. :runaway:
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Sure. What bothers me is that the Celts were the first Neolithic, Indo-European tribe to set foot in Europe. They had the continent (and the assignment of marginalizing the Cro-Magnon) to themselves for centuries before the Hellenic, Italic and Germanic tribes showed up at the margins and verrrry slowly began spreading out. Would it not be the Celts then, who did most of the intermarrying with the Cro-Magnon, thereby picking up a smidge of their Neanderthal DNA? Why would the Greeks, Sicilians and Dutch have it in the same proportion, since they got it third-hand from intermarrying with the Celts? As did the Slavic peoples from intermarrying with the Bohumil (the people after whom Bohemia is named) and other Celtic tribes in eastern Europe who hadn't already been wiped out by the Goths? And who can explain why the Huns and Bulgars, latecomers to the continent, would have it at all? Does this mean the European Jews, also latecomers, have it too? Wow, that's some aggressive DNA.

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    I find it amusing that the K in P-I-E kmtom is so ephemeral that most of the "Kentum" languages have also lost it: German hundert, Italian cento ("chento"), Spanish cien ("thien"), Portuguese cem ("seng".) Greek is one of very few modern languages that still has it (he-katon), and perhaps this so impressed the early linguists that they automatically assigned it to our branch of the family.

    Does anybody know the Armenian and Albanian words for "hundred"? Tocharian? [edit #1: Armenian is harur, which gives me no clue, but since "ten" is dasseh it might be lumped in the Satem or Eastern branch of the family.] [edit #2: Albanian is njëqind. I think I'll just leave that one alone!]

    They're still arguing over the location of the urheimat of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Last time I checked everyone was certain that it was the Pontic Steppe, but today they're looking at Anatolia!

    Um... dozens? When we wish the Christian armies a long hot afterlife in Hell, we focus on their obliteration of two of the world's only six independently-developed civilizations, and weep over what they might have taught us about our species and the universe if we'd let them mature. Nothing wrong with that wish. But we can also hurl a few more curses down at them for what they did to the paleolithic tribes north of the Rio Grande and the sprouting neolithic tribes in what is now the eastern USA. What we might have learned about the paleolithic-neolithic transition by watching it happen! Its influence on language alone is a loss worthy of tears.

    Do you mean we, speaking our modern languages, or we, attempting to speak our academic reconstructions of their languages? Proto-Indo-European has been lovingly crafted by generations of linguists, like the Lego model of the World Trade center in the Smithsonian's National Building Museum. But I'm not sure any of those linguists honestly believe that if they hopped out of their time machine, after a 5000-year trip backwards (having found the right urheimat!), anyone would actually understand them.
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2013
  20. wellwisher Banned Banned

    The first languages would be visual not verbal. When an animal mother teaches her young to hunt, she does not need an advanced verbal language, to break down this advanced task. The task can be learned by seeing, copying and practice. Although this is an example of a visual language, linguistics is concerned with verbal language or when the visual becomes more verbal.

    Say you were a blacksmith 5000 year ago. An apprenticeship would last years, since he would learn by watching and doing. People were not educated and rational scientific explanations are very recent. Since women are more verbal, a visual language would have been more for the males with a verbal language more for the female.

    Early cave writing was pictorials, using crude visual reproduction to express meaning. If you saw picture of a man with the spear hunting the deer, these pictures could trigger visual memories; one picture equals 1000 words. This visualization may have been harder for the ladies, who would have developed more verbal cues forming the first spoken languages; matriarchs. I would guess the males learned verbal language from the females and started to diversify language; matriarchs declined.

    If you think of it logically, the pre-human males would do the hunting. To be a good hunter, you can't make noise, or you will scare the animals away. You need to be quiet and need to learn to make use of visual signs (tracks) of the animal, while using quiet cues to communicate with the hunting party in silence. There is little natural selection for the noisy hunter.

    The females would help gather. If the females were gathering berries, you don't need to track berries with visual cues, nor do they run away if you make noises. In this case, noises could help you scare away birds. It could also help others locate you to help gather the berries. A mother and child benefit by sounds since babies communicate with basic sounds; cry.

    Religion was often based on visions and dreams which are more of a visual language of symbols. This may have been translated into art, which has a subjective impact beyond spoken language. Visual is a faster spatial language, while verbal is differential and slower. The art can impact you immediately after the visual input. But to express this in words can take volumes.

    Faith is a visual abstraction that is hard to convey with words. It needs the visual language speed to create that intuitive hum that is hard to slow down and express with audio sounds.
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Please don't say "verbal" when you mean "oral." "Verbal" means "using words," and includes both oral and written communication. In popular parlance this distinction has become muddled, but this is the Linguistics board so let's use our words properly.

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    ASL and the words on this screen are examples of verbal communication.

    Not all communication is language. In the most expansive definition, language is a system of standardized symbols used by a community to communicate. These symbols can be sounds, gestures, carvings, drawings, knots, piles of stones or notches on trees.

    Simply watching somebody perform a task and copying her motions is not language. But reading and writing IS.

    That was the very dawn of the Iron Age, so you would have been one of the first blacksmiths. And you would have been a very popular fellow. The horse had already been domesticated for about 2,000 years and people had been waiting impatiently for you to invent the horseshoe.

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    We've all been trained in the performance of complex tasks, starting with our parents, then our teachers, and continuing with our supervisors, managers and other mentors in our professions, hobbies, etc. All of this training is dominated by verbal explanations, both oral and written. I daresay there are very few tasks in the modern world that can be learned well and completely just by observation and mimicry.

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, some anthropologists identify 70KYA as the most likely era of the invention of the technology of spoken language. There was an explosion of human activities of myriad types, which they specifically identify as activities that would be impossibly difficult to perform, much less learn, without speech.

    Yes, deaf people get along very well in the modern world with sign language. But it has a major drawback: you can't communicate and use your hands to perform another task at the same time.

    I can hear our female members shouting, "Sexist pig!"

    This was not writing. It was, specifically drawing. Some elements were noticed to be common among many drawings and were stylized and abstracted to carry specific meanings that everyone learned to understand. This happened about 6,000 years ago when the first writing systems were invented, using these symbols as logograms: one symbol representing one word. Chinese still uses logograms because it's the only way speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, and the other mutually unintelligible languages that we mistakenly call "dialects" can communicate with each other. The Japanese have held onto about 2,000 of these logograms but also use a phonetic syllabary. Virtually all other cultures use phonetic symbols, even though some (notably we anglophones and our cultural competitors the French) don't use them very well.

    . . . . sexist pig . . . . sexist pig . . . .

    Most women had a nursing baby much of the time, so it wasn't practical for them to chase mastodons. They had to be the gatherers. Since they became experts in choosing herbs and finding out what they can do, they also became the healers. It's been suggested that they also developed a better color sense than men because the key to efficient gathering is being able to tell which fruits are ripe and which leaves and mushrooms are poisonous.

    You must not be married. If you'd ever had an argument with your wife you'd know that women are capable of the most oppressive silence--which can last for several days until you suddenly realize that you were, indeed, wrong. Whereas men instinctively start jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs every time one of them manages to toss a ball into a basket.

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    I think it was Steve Martin who explained that women are still gatherers and men are still hunters. It's obvious if you go shopping with us. A woman goes through the store picking everything up, touching it, noticing the size and texture, and comparing its color to the one next to it, and when she finds the one she wants, she puts it in her basket. Then she goes to the next grove--oops I meant "store"--looking for something else.

    A man, on the other hand, says, "Me need shirt. Me go hunt shirt." He walks into one store, picks up one shirt, throws its lifeless carcass over his shoulder, drags it to the cashier, and carries it home saying, "Shirt dead. Me go watch TV."

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  22. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    Surely you meant visible.

    Wouldn't aural be better than oral?
  23. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I suppose spoken language is both oral and aural. But we produce it with our mouths so I suppose that's why we call it that. After all, many deaf people learn to speak, so the people who produce spoken language very slightly outnumber those who hear it.

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    On the other hand, dogs and many other non-human animals learn to understand tiny bits of our language, so perhaps those who produce it orally are in fact outnumbered by those who respond to it aurally.

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    "Vocal" would be good too.

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