Dietary Habits Impact Language Development

An international team of researchers found that diet-induced changes in humans resulted in new sounds such as “f” and “v” in European languages.

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

The research team led by Damián Blasi from the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, said the language is the basic form of communication among human beings, the German News Agency reported.

The researchers explained that the basic anatomical requirements for this communication actually existed half a million years ago. Today, the human language is characterized by a great diversity including thousands of different sounds in about 7,000 languages in the current age.

According to scientists, among these sounds is the widespread “m” and “a”, along with some letters used in Africa. For a long time, there have been experts who believed that the currently available sounds have not drastically changed since the evolution of humans.

However, in 1985, Linguist Charles Hockett was the first to think that this may not be true, as letters such as “f” and “v” were not available in indigenous communities that lived on fishing and hunting. Such sounds are called the labiodentals, because, to be pronounced, they require both lips and teeth. When pronouncing the letter “f”, for example, the upper incisors touch the lower lip.

Hockett attributed the lack of these sounds in fishing and hunting communities to the fact that people were often forced to chew dry and un-cooked food at the time.

According to Hockett’s theory, the resulting tooth erosion led to the collisions of the upper and lower jaws during puberty. 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.

The researchers also studied the frequency of labiodentals in different languages, and the favorable foods in the areas with languages involving those sounds. They found that these letters are more likely to be used by people who have long been accustomed to cooking and eating soft food, and less used in languages of fishermen and hunters.

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