A new study which is the culmination of five years of research has revealed that ancient humans only developed the ability to pronounce F’s and V’s after soft foods were introduced into agriculture.
According to Science Magazine, humans slowly made the transition to softer foods after agriculture became more widespread. Because less wear and strain was produced on teeth from this new variation in food, over the course of thousands of years humans eventually developed an overbite that enabled them to finally speak words which had Fs and Vs in them.
These consonants, which are also referred to as labiodentals, had a profound influence upon languages that sprang up and were spoken in both Europe and Asia.
One striking example of this is that 1,500 years ago the Proto-Indo-European word patēr had grown and changed into the word faeder, which would never have been spoken before soft foods appeared in agriculture, as Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich in Switzerland noted.
Evolutionary morphologist Noreen Von Cramon-Taubadel, from the University at Buffalo, explained that the new research on the gradual shift of language due to new agriculture demonstrates “that a cultural shift can change our biology in such a way that it affects our language.”
It was the American linguist Charles Hockett who originally proposed in 1985 that hunter-gatherer humans were unable pronounce labiodentals, which is something that he attributed in part to the very early diets of humans.
Because some linguists believed that this assertion was incorrect, postdoctorates Damián Blasi and Steven Moran decided to test this theory out for themselves, and Blasi has stated that they began their research fully expecting “to prove Hockett wrong.”
Don't like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. https://t.co/NlRT4fjdnm— News from Science (@NewsfromScience) March 14, 2019
To determine whether Hockett’s theory was correct, scientists turned to computer modeling and discovered that humans with an overbite would have found it 29 percent easier to produce labiodentals than they would if this overbite wasn’t there. After the conclusion of the computer modeling, scientists then analyzed ancient hunter-gatherer languages and found that labiodentals weren’t used nearly as often as they were in later farming societies.
When scientists later scrutinized the relationships that different languages shared, they discovered that the use of labiodentals like Fs and Vs in human languages spread astonishingly fast after soft foods were introduced into agriculture.
Bickels reached the conclusion that once overbites developed as a result of consuming softer foods, Fs and Vs became much more prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Further, it was also discovered that in places like India and Rome, using labiodentals may once have been a display of wealth and influence as these consonants would mainly have been spoken by those who lived and ate well.
However, as useful as being able to finally pronounce labiodentals was, it also unfortunately led to shorter jaws and cavities, according to Moran.
“We got new sounds but maybe it wasn’t so great for us. Our lower jaws are shorter, we have impacted wisdom teeth, more crowding—and cavities.”
The new study which has demonstrated that humans gained the ability to pronounce Fs and Vs after the rise of soft foods in agriculture has been published in Science.