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Human Ancestors' Diet Led You to Pronounce Your F's and V's

16 March 2019

An global team of researchers found that diet-induced changes in humans resulted in new sounds such as "f" and "v" in European languages. This range of sounds is generally thought to have been established with the emergence of the Homo sapiens around 300,000 years ago. A study by an worldwide group headed up by scientists at the University of Zurich and involving researchers at two Max Planck Institutes, the University of Lyon and Nanyang Technological University Singapore now sheds new light on the evolution of spoken language. So Hockett suggested that those labiodental consonants must have been a recent addition to human speech, appearing in conjunction with access to softer foods as people had the ability to mill grain. But continuous and substantial tooth wear resulting from chewing on food changes the teeth configuration to an edge-to-edge bite. A biomechanical computer model that mimics humans speech showed that having an overbite allows humans to produce "f" and "v" sounds using 29% less energy than in an edge-to-edge configuration.

The new research has indicated that the use of labiodental sounds - which are produced by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth - increased dramatically only over the past 3,000 to 6,000 years in parallel with the rise of food processing, milling and softer food.

"The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the vast diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution", said University of Zurich team member Steven Moran.

American linguist Charles Hockett had in 1985 first proposed that labiodentals are overwhelmingly absent in languages whose speakers live from hunting and gathering, because the associated wear and tear diet induces an edge-to-edge bite. In 1985, renowned linguist Chares Hocket claimed that hunter-gatherers would find it hard to pronounce "f" and "v" sounds - which linguists call labiodentals - due to their jaw structure. Lead study author Damian Blasi said that language and speech needed to be treated by considering the interplay between biology and culture.

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In order to unravel the mechanisms underlying the observed correlations, the scientists combined insights, data and methods from across the sciences, including biological anthropology, phonetics and historical linguistics. "It was a rare case of consilience across disciplines", says Blasi.

According to project leader Balthasar Bickel, the study results "shed light on complex causal links between cultural practices, human biology and language". They analyzed a database of roughly 2,000 languages - more than a quarter of languages in existence today - to identify which sounds were more and less frequently used, and where.

"Our anatomy actually changed the types of sounds being incorporated into languages", Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Buffalo who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

Human Ancestors' Diet Led You to Pronounce Your F's and V's