As we know, many of our nonverbal behaviors have deep roots in our own process of evolution, but maybe our verbal behaviors have historical roots too.
While perhaps not quite as deeply ingrained as biological evolution, a new study in Science found evidence that many of our speech patterns can be linked back to changing dietary practices due to the dawn of agriculture. Specifically, our use of sounds like “F” and “V” can be linked to changing jaw and overbite structures that arose around that time.
Postdoctoral researchers Damián Blasi and Steven Moran got their idea from 34 year old linguistic analyses that found that contemporary hunter-gatherers lacked some of the linguistic types, called labiodentals, that many agricultural based people had.
When humans became accustomed to chewing foods high in fibers, the jaw bone is put under pressure and molars are worn down. This results in a more even mouth, developing away from an overbite and also making it easier to pronounce sounds like “F” and “V”.
While this idea may have some intuitive credibility, such an attitude was not shared in linguistic communities when linguist Charles Hockett made these unusual observations. Instead, he was met with skepticism, and it was that skepticism that Blasi and Moran sought to validate by proving Hockett wrong.
But they were very surprised. In order to assess Hockett’s claim, they made use of computer models to simulate how the human mouth makes sounds with varying degrees of overbite, and they analyzed languages around the world to see which languages most frequently used labiodental sounds.
The results are incredible striking. The computer models indicate that overbites make labiodental sounds much harder, with contemporary edge-to-edge teeth reducing the necessary effort by almost 30 percent.
Similarly, they discovered that labiodentals were much less common among languages used by hunter-gatherer communities. What might be most striking about these findings is the fact that they were able to track the progress of labiodentals emerging in languages throughout history, finding a steady increase in their use as societies developed and became more focused on expansive settled agriculture.
It is not all good news for those of us who enjoy our labiodentals, as we are also more at risk of cavities and of our teeth becoming overcrowded.
However, this study makes important strides in tracking how our communicative patterns are closely tied to our evolution and to our society. This is important if you are trying to better understand people of different cultures.
For instance, this study shows certain commonalities among those who speak Indo-European languages, emphasizing cross-cultural similarities. Yet, on the other hand, the fact that these speech patterns only emerged because of certain social arrangements also shows how deep the communicative gap can be between people of different cultures.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to better read people and communicate across cultural divides. This is one of Humintell’s specialties, and we even offer a cross-cultural training class!