There are more than 170,000 words in the English language but some, like “vampire”, “flamingo”, “volcano” and, of course, the F word, may not even exist if it weren’t for agriculture.
Authors of a new paper published in Science argue that certain sounds, including F and V, were not regular features of the human language until the dawn of farming in the Neolithic era. The general gist of their argument centers on the human diet – specifically, the dominance of softer food only made possible through agriculture. This dietary change shaped the way our jaws develop through life, they say, making it easier to produce certain sounds.
Today, there are more than 2,000 different speech sounds in the world’s 7,000 or so languages. Some (like clicks) tend to be obscure and are found in just a small fraction of languages, while others (like the vowel “a”) are ubiquitous and more (like rolled “r”s) sit somewhere in between. Labiodental is the name given to constants like F and V, which are articulated with the lower lip and upper teeth.
Using biomechanical models, Damián Blasi from the University of Zurich and colleagues show that labiodentals require 30 percent less muscular effort when the person doing the talking has an overbite and not an edge-to-edge bite configuration (that is, when the upper teeth align perfectly with the lower teeth).
While all primates (humans included) begin life with an overbite, over time a diet of tough food changes the jaw so that by adulthood this overbite has turned into an edge-to-edge bite formation. Unless that is, the primate in question lives in an agricultural society where food is processed through techniques like milling and fermentation, making it soft and, therefore, easier to chew. In that case, the overbite extends (no pun intended) well into adulthood.
And so, Blasi argues, words containing F and V sounds only began to arise during societies’ transition to agriculture, sometime between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago depending on where in the world they were.
This hypothesis is backed up by global data on food and language, showing not only that a softer diet affects jaw formation (smaller, more crowded teeth) but that F and V sounds have indeed become more common over the past few thousand years. What’s more, the frequency of F and V sounds in today’s hunter-gatherer societies is far lower than it is for agricultural societies like the US and UK. On average, they have roughly a quarter of the number of labiodental sounds.
“The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the immense diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution,” explained Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich, according to New Scientist. This overturns the assumption that language is a “fixed skill” in so far as it has changed a little since its origin 300,000 or so years ago.
However, it is important to note that while there is an interesting correlation, the study does not prove that agriculture determines the development of labiodental sounds. It simply suggests it makes it quite a bit more likely.
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