Study: Dietary changes led to humans pronouncing the ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds

Changes in diet developed the human bite, enabling them to make certain noises, more specifically noises made with both the top teeth and lower lip.

Apparently, labiodental sounds are a relatively recent evolutionary development.

Labiodental constants are sounds that require the use of both the lip and upper teeth to produce, sounds like “f” and “v” for instance.


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According to the author of a new study, these phonetics were not achievable for our early-early ancestors. “We can say with fairly good confidence that 20,000 or 100,000 years ago, these sounds just simply didn’t exist,” said linguist Balthasar Bickel, one of the authors.

The cultural impact on biology

Even more intriguing than this, is the reason behind our ability to make certain sounds. The study states that changes in diet developed the human bite as they got older, enabling them to make certain noises, more specifically noises produced by utilizing the top teeth and lower lip found in about half of the languages spoken around the world.

The jaw structure required to make labiodental constants were much less prevalent in the Paleolithic Period by reason of the rough diet that was strenuous on the teeth. The gradual switch to softer agricultural foods put less stress on teeth and jaws leading to overbites more frequently. Bringing the upper teeth and lower lip closer in proximity may have authored the Fuh sound for instance.

“We looked into the distribution of labiodental sounds across thousands of languages and their relation to the characteristic sources of food of the people speaking those languages,” Bickel explained at a recent press conference.

The linguistic researchers tested their postulation via biomechanics models.  Their experiments determined that it takes 29% less muscular effort to form labiodental sounds when the speaker has an overbite.

The findings indicate “that the probability of producing labiodental sounds increases slightly over time, and that means that some languages are likely to acquire them but not all languages will,” says co-author Steven Moran.

Contrary to the wisdom presented by the uniformity principle ( “in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, assume language to be uniform, with variety restricted to easily detectable properties of utterances”) this new theory suggests that language has significantly changed over the last millenniums. Foods like corn wheat and rice, are less diverse and much easier on the teeth. The researchers behind the recent study found that hunter and gatherer societies used labiodentals about one third less than agricultural societies.

The notion that cultural factors influenced biological developments is beyond fascinating.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.