Human diet led to speech sounds such as 'f' and 'v'

A new study suggests that developments in human speech, like the ability to make the "f" and "v" sounds, were preceded by diet-induced dental changes.

Back in the twentieth century linguist Charles Hockett first spotted that speech sounds called labiodentals, such as "f" and "v", were more common in the languages where people ate softer foods. Now a team from the University of Zurich has demonstrated how and why this happened.

They found that in ancient humans the upper and lower incisors of ancient adults were aligned, making it hard to produce the sounds, which are formed by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth. However, as jaw formations developed over the centuries a point was reached where an overbite structure was present, making it easier to produce the "f" and "v" sounds.

This change was shown to correlate with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period. In this era softer, farmed foods, allowed the jawbone to change as it no longer had to do as much work.

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A combination photo shows a 5600 year old skull (L), found on the Maltese island of Gozo, and a facial reconstruction based on it during Jewellery Through the Times, part of Fashion Week Malta, in which models presented replicas of jewellery worn in Neolithic Malta, in Lija outside Valletta, May 7, 2013. The replicas were recreated with meticulous attention to detail from unique pieces dating back to 3600 B.C. at the National Museum of Archaeology, according to the organisers. The facial reconstruction by the University of Dundee, the first ever done of a Neolithic inhabitant of Malta, is of a woman who died in her thirties round 3600 B.C. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi (MALTA - Tags: FASHION SOCIETY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) MALTA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN MALTA
Prehistory. Female Skeleton. Chiozza culture (2900-2700 BC), Upper Neolithic. Civic Museum Chierici, Reggio Emilia, Italy
BALI, INDONESIA, NOVEMBER 03: The skulls seen composed in the Trunyan cemetery area on November 03, 2016 in Bali, Indonesia. Trunyan often referred to as the Bali Aga (mountain Bali), which refers to the pre-Hindu conservative way of life with the ancient customs of the neolithic and untouched from outside influences. Instead of the term 'Bali Aga, the term Bali Mula (Bali 'native') is often used. The indigenous people in the village have a unique burial traditions in death. Where the body was not cremated by fire by others, Trunyan people simply placed on the ground and allowed to reunite to nature. 'Cremation tradition Terunyan applies to people who are married and died in a state of reasonable or normal, not because of anything criminal event or tragedy and others,' said Terunyan village chief. PHOTOGRAPH BY Sutanta Aditya / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Sutanta Aditya / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BALI, INDONESIA, NOVEMBER 03: The skulls seen composed in the Trunyan cemetery area on November 03, 2016 in Bali, Indonesia. Trunyan often referred to as the Bali Aga (mountain Bali), which refers to the pre-Hindu conservative way of life with the ancient customs of the neolithic and untouched from outside influences. Instead of the term 'Bali Aga, the term Bali Mula (Bali 'native') is often used. The indigenous people in the village have a unique burial traditions in death. Where the body was not cremated by fire by others, Trunyan people simply placed on the ground and allowed to reunite to nature. 'Cremation tradition Terunyan applies to people who are married and died in a state of reasonable or normal, not because of anything criminal event or tragedy and others,' said Terunyan village chief. PHOTOGRAPH BY Sutanta Aditya / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Sutanta Aditya / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Prehistory. Female Skeleton, from the Arene Candide Cave (Liguria). Neolithic period, Stone Age. Museo di Archeologia Ligure , Genoa, Italy
Neolithic Art. Human skull from Jericho. Stone age, c.6000-4000 BC. Archaeological Museum, Amman, Jordan
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Language databases confirmed the global change with the labiodental sounds not found in the languages of many hunter-gatherer societies of the present day.

This research contradicts the prevailing view that all human speech sounds were present when homo sapiens first evolved around 300,000 years ago.

"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," said University of Zurich team member Steven Moran.

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