The way you speak now was shaped by what your ancestors ate

How the evolution of the human diet gave rise to the f-word: Researchers say ‘v’ and ‘f’ sounds developed as ancient societies learned to farm and cook

  • Researchers analyzed Stone Age and modern skulls, created simulations of jaw 
  • This allowed them to see how placement is influenced by how we chew our food 
  • Before societies grew crops, learned to cook, humans chewed tough raw meat
  • In Europe, ‘v’ and ‘f’ sounds may only have emerged within the last 2,000 years 

Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ is one of the most famous speeches in history.

But there is a chance he pronounced the Latin words ‘veni, vidi, vici’ more like ‘weni, widi, wici’.

Humans may only relatively recently have been able to properly pronounce the letters ‘v’ and ‘f’, scientists suggest. They say these sounds are possible because modern humans eat softer diets and use our teeth less. 

The way most of us speak today is shaped in part by how long ago our ancestors gave up chewing tough, raw meat.

It’s widely known that languages evolve as societies develop and change, but 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 report Thursday in the journal Science.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton, left, on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Languages evolve as societies develop and change, but sounds we utter are also shaped, literally, by the placement of our jaw

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.

The researchers analyzed Stone Age and modern skulls and created simulations of how different jaw placements allow our mouths to make different sounds.

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.

Languages spoken by groups with hunter-gatherer societies in their more recent past are far less likely to use consonants used by longtime farming societies, the study found.

‘Our anatomy actually changed the types of sounds being incorporated into languages,’ Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Buffalo who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

Before societies cultivated crops and learned to cook food, early humans chewed tough raw meat – which was hard work on our jaws and teeth. Stone Age adult skulls don’t look like modern skulls. 

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These older skulls have upper and lower teeth closing directly on top of each other – whereas today most people have some degree of overbite, with the front teeth extending in front of bottom teeth when the mouth is closed.

‘If you are raised on softer foods, you don’t have the same kind of wear and tear on your bite that your ancestors had, so you keep an overbite,’ said Bickel.

Eating softer foods not only sets the jaw in a different fashion, but also changes which sounds are easily pronounced. In particular, it becomes much easier to say ‘f” and ‘v,’ which linguists call ‘labiodental’ sounds.

(Try it. Put your upper and lower incisors – or ‘front teeth’ – directly on top of each other and try say ‘favor.’ It’s difficult.)

Afarmer, left, ritualistically offers a small portion of food to god before eating her lunch while working at a rice field in Chunnikhel, Katmandu, Nepal

The researchers looked closely at 52 languages from what is called the Indo-European language group – including dialects spoken from Iceland to India – and charted how the ‘f” and ‘v” sounds appeared in a rising number of languages over time. 

In Europe it could have been only two thousand years ago, after the time that Caesar was a great ruler of Rome.

Dr Steven Moran, a co-author of a study on the development of human speech from the University of Zurich, said: ‘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.

‘The influence of biological conditions on the development of sounds has so far been underestimated.’

Our ability to say ‘v’ and ‘f’ effortlessly today may be down to the invention of pottery and agriculture by our ancestors.

Farming brought us milk and dairy products, which over time we were able to store in newly-invented pots and ferment to become soft cheese and yoghurt. Over the past couple of thousand years, the milling industry has also allowed us to produce soft bread.

The shift from tough foods to softer ones like gruel, porridge and stews changed our teeth, scientists believe based on ancient fossil skulls. 

As more societies developed agriculture and traded in raw meat for softer fare – whether it’s cooked meat and potatoes, or rice and stewed vegetables – these sounds became more common, the researchers found.

‘New sounds get introduced into languages, and then are more widely adopted,’ said Moran.

The notion that agriculture shaped language was first suggested decades ago by American linguist Charles Hockett, but he did not attempt to prove it.

Elan Dresher, a linguist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study, commended testing Hockett’s theory, but said the research could be fine-tuned by looking at historical reconstructions of languages, rather than using language databases to make comparisons.

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