Diet-related changes in human bite spread new speech sounds

16 Mars, 2019, 21:11 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • SPeaking

However, a study published yesterday in the journal Science suggests that some sounds - including "f" and "v" - are new additions, appearing only 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. In other words, language also changed along with diet. As per some linguistic experts, most humans share identical biological tools and sound-making abilities for spoken languages. The languages are not only generally unintelligible between one another, but they can also be radically different in the way sounds that convey meaning are produced.

This research contradicts the prevailing view that all human speech sounds were present when homo sapiens first evolved around 300,000 years ago. 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. When humans started eating softer food like cheese, tooth wear became less pronounced and as a result, more and more people kept an overbite into adulthood. These sounds are made by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, as when pronouncing the letter "f".

"In Europe, our data suggests that the use of labiodentals has increased dramatically only in the last couple of millennia, correlated with the rise of food processing technology such as industrial milling", said study co-first author Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

"The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the enormous 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.

However, this did not mean they definitely would be. Human speech organs do not use all that much energy to begin with - not relative to movement, for instance.

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Human speech is incredibly diverse, ranging from ubiquitous sounds like "m" and "a" to the rare click consonants in some languages of Southern Africa.

The researchers used biomechanical models replicating human speech and determined that labiodentals require about 30% less muscular effort in the overbite model compared with the edge to edge bite. In the future, the researchers believe that their method could be used to reconstruct how ancient written languages were spoken aloud.

"I hope our study will trigger a wider discussion on the fact that at least some aspects of language and speech-and I insist, some-need to be treated as we treat other complex human behaviors: laying between biology and culture", said Damián Blasi, lead author of the study. 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.

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 worldwide languages, as explained the researchers in their study published Thursday in the Science Magazine.

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