Why humans struggled to make 'f' and 'v' sounds until farming came along

Love to drop F-bombs? Thank the shift to agriculture.

  • A new study suggests that the f and v sounds were made easier to pronounce by the change in our diets the invention of farming made possible.
  • The idea isn't a new one, but is only now being taken seriously.
  • Even today, many hunter-gather cultures lack labiodentals in their languages.

The Neolithic Revolution fundamentally changed how humanity went about the business of surviving. With the rise of farming, humans no longer had to travel into inclement climates following the migration of animals, their former pervasive food source. Instead, fields of grain were cultivated, and, in turn, permanent settlements were created — civilization was established.

But while the social and economic effects of this revolution are apparent, other significant effects of switching to farming on our daily lives are more subtle. Among them is a minor change in our anatomy that allows us to make the "f" and "v" sounds.

How a change in diet changed everything

F and V are labiodentals, which means to make their sounds you have to raise your lower lip to your top teeth. This is easy enough with a slight overbite, but if your teeth are closer to being even, as the skulls of our ancient ancestors suggest was once more common, the sounds become harder to make.

Decades ago, the linguist Charles Hockett pointed out that societies with softer foods had more labiodentals in their languages than societies that were still hunting and gathering. He hypothesized that the shift to farming might have allowed for this, as softer foods require smaller lower jaws than hard foods do.

Constantly eating foods that are hard or raw is tough on your teeth. Over time, it can lead to them lining up more edge to edge. Soft diets also put less pressure on your jaw, which can lead to a shorter mandible which itself can contribute to a slight overbite or overjet.

In a society where none of the food is softened by processing, most people are going to end up with no overbite at all by the time they're adults. In a society with softer, processed foods, such as grains, an overbite as an adult becomes possible and eventually the standard. This, more than anything, makes a language that uses labiodentals practical.

His idea never really caught on, and a new study out of the University of Zurich by Dr. Balthasar Bickel, Steven Moran, Damián Blasi, and others set out to prove Dr. Hockett wrong. It accidentally found he was onto something.

What, how did they do that?

Three skulls showing the evolution of the adult overbite. On the left is the skull of a Paleolithic woman, notice the edge-to-edge teeth contact. In the center is a woman from the Mesolithic era with a similar smile. On the right we see the overbite of a Bronze Age male.

Blasi et al, David Frayer, Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas, USA, Mihai Constantinescu, Institutul de Antropologie "Fr. J. Rainer," Bucharest, Romania, Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta, Department of Anthropology, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Austria.

The scientists used biomechanical simulations to learn how much easier it is to pronounce labiodentals with a slight overbite than with perfectly even teeth. As it turns out, it helps a lot, the simulated jaws that had perfectly even teeth needed a third more energy to pronounce their f and v sounds.

If it takes that much energy and contortion of the mouth to make those sounds, you can imagine why some languages might never have bothered to incorporate them.

The authors also reviewed data on the languages of hunter-gather societies and found they only used labiodentals about a quarter as much as languages used by agricultural communities. Skulls of humans from both before and after the agrarian revolution were examined again and an increase in the number of overbites as the availability of softer foods improved was found.

For good measure, they then compared daughter languages — languages that descend from others — to their older counterparts and found that labiodentals were more frequent in the younger languages.

This is cool and all, but what use does this have?

These findings could severely impact a few theories in linguistics. Co-author Steven Moran explained that the results show that our idea of humans being able to make the same sounds since we started speaking is now up for debate:

"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."

Sean Roberts of the University of Bristol told New Scientist that the findings were "exciting" and explained them in terms of how linguists were going to be using the data for further research: "For the first time, we can look at patterns in global data and spot new relationships between the way we speak and the way we live."

The shift to agriculture changed not only how we live, but how we can express ourselves. While introducing more labiodentals into the world probably isn't as big a deal as making civilization possible, it still shows that the worlds we humans create can change us more than we would ever think they could.

Should you defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazis?

Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen discusses whether our society should always defend free speech rights, even for groups who would oppose such rights.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen understands that protecting free speech rights isn't always a straightforward proposition.
  • In this video, Strossen describes the reasoning behind why the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

This smart tech gives plants feelings

Designers from Luxembourg created a smart planter that can make anyone have a green thumb.

Images credit: mu-design
Technology & Innovation
  • A design team came up with a smart planter that can indicate 15 emotions.
  • The emotions are derived from the sensors placed in the planter.
  • The device is not in production yet but you can order it through a crowdfunding campaign.
Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Often times, interactions that we think are "zero-sum" can actually be beneficial for both parties.
  • Ask, What outcome will be good for both parties? How can we achieve that goal?
  • Afraid the win-win situation might not continue? Build trust by creating a situation that increases the probability you and your counterpart will meet again.