Diet-induced changes favor innovation in speech sounds

SPeaking

Diet-induced changes in the human bite resulted in new sounds such as "f" in languages all over the world, a study by an worldwide team led by researchers at the University of Zurich has shown. But this is not the case, since many languages employ hard speech sounds, such as clicks in some languages native to southern Africa. The sounds we utter are also shaped, literally, by the placement of our jaw - and that is influenced by how we chew our food, researchers say in a report released Thursday, March 14, 2019, in the journal Science.

The use of the consonants, known as labiodentals, has "increased dramatically" in Europe over the last few thousand years, lead author Dr Steven Moran, from the University of Zurich, said. The study concluded by saying, "Our findings reveal that the transition from prehistoric foragers to contemporary societies has had an impact on the human speech apparatus, and therefore on our species' main mode of communication and social differentiation: spoken language". They also found that labiodental sounds occurred accidentally when trying to make other speech sounds in the overbite model.

Labiodental sounds are produced by positioning the lower lip under the upper teeth.

Although languages around the world vary greatly, some share similar speech sounds. Humans who consumed soft food, had less eroded teeth, which led to the formation of a section in which incisors of the upper jaw became more evident than in the lower jaw in adults.

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The study found that, on average, hunter-gatherer societies - with less access to processed and softer food - have only 27 per cent the number of labiodentals observed in societies with abundant access to processed food. This is why most scholars believe that biological machinery for producing human speech has remained largely unchanged since humans emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago.

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.

Language study often focuses on cultural factors, "but our work shows that language is also a biological phenomenon - you can't fully separate culture and biology", said Balthasar Bickel, a linguist at the University of Zurich and co-author of the new study. "But there are dozens of superficial correlations involving language which are spurious, and linguistic behavior, such as pronunciation, doesn't fossilize", says co-first author Damián Blasi.

Thousands of years ago, when humans began cooking or preparing their food in other forms, the structure of their teeth altered, and thus, eased the pronunciation of certain letters that are today involved in several global languages, as explained the researchers in their study published Thursday in the Science Magazine. 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.

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