Changes in Human Diet Affected How We Speak

Breaking News

Changes in Human Diet Affected How We Speak

Linguists think that we all share the same biological tools and sound-making abilities for spoken languages / Photo by Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123RF


Our ability to speak separates us from the other species of the animal kingdom. Language has enabled us to do many things such as reading, writing, math, and so many more.

There's a saying that you are what you eat. But can that actually affect the way we speak?

A team of linguists from the University of Zurich used biomechanics and linguistic evidence to establish the case that the onset of agriculture thousands of years ago has increased the use of sounds such as /F/ and /V/. It builds on the premise that agriculture has introduced softer foods to human diet and this somehow has changed the human teeth and jaws so that these sounds are easier to produce.

Damián Blasi, the lead study author, said that he hopes this study can encourage more discussion on the fact that some aspects of language and speech must be treated just like how we treat human behaviors and that is by laying between biology and culture.

If confirmed, this study will be the first to show that a cultural change in human biology can change global languages. Blasi and his colleagues emphasize that changes in tooth wear do not guarantee changes in language or replace other forces. However, the argument lies in that the shift in tooth wear can improve sounds such as /F/ and /V/. Scientists who are experts in tooth wear are welcoming the idea.

The traditional diet of tough foods developed and enhanced the scissors bite / Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko via 123RF


Tooth Wear

This is a common pattern that comes from a deep evolution root. It is not only specific for humans but this can also be seen in great apes, according to University of Zurich paleoanthropologists Marcia Ponce de León and Christoph Zollikofer. They did not take part in the study but they said, “Who could have imagined that, after millions of years of evolution, it will have implications for human language diversity?”

While these are all based on assumptions, Tecumseh Fitch said that the authors of the study have built a plausible case. Fitch added, “This is probably the most convincing study yet showing how biological constraints on language change could themselves change over time due to cultural changes.” Tecumseh Fitch is an expert on bioacoustics at the University of Vienna.

There are still many linguists that are skeptical when it comes to talking about differences in languages that has something to do with ethnocentrism. Based on the variety of tongues and dialects, linguists think that we all share the same biological tools and sound-making abilities for spoken languages.

Biology and Language

To know the origins of language and understand its evolution to the language that we know today, there is a need to look into the language from a perspective that includes both biology and culture. The problem is that language is not part of biology but is a part of literature, humanities, culture, and intellect.

This can be a unique categorization because the communication method of other animals is part of nature. We process language with our brains and produce it with our body.

The traditional belief is that language is a fixed skill. The uniformitarian assumption in linguistics and anthropology is that languages today are the same in their types and distribution of linguistic structures just like they were in the past.

Food and Language

This new research challenges the uniformitarian assumption. It is believed that the range of speech sounds in the human language is not the same since its origin.

Research has shown that labiodental sounds such as /F/ and /V/, which are made by raising the bottom lip to the upper teeth, only started after agriculture started, sometime about 10,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Labiodentals today appear in half of the languages all over the world. Indo-European languages have changed a lot since the Bronze Age. They did not remain the same.

What brought about the new class of speech sounds? To understand this, we have to look into biological anthropology. All primates started with an overbite and overjet bite configuration or a scissors bite. The traditional diet of tough foods developed and enhanced the scissors bite into an edge-to-edge bite by adulthood.

Food processing technologies such as fermentation and milling together with the development of agriculture gave people the opportunity to move to a softer diet. Archaeological evidence showed adult skulls with scissors bite date back to 4,300 years ago in what is today Pakistan.

This change in human bite has paved the way for labiodentals to be incorporated in spoken languages.  When /F/ and /V/ sounds became easier to make, the sounds became common and perhaps, at first, it came out almost accidentally. While these new sounds did not emerge everywhere, retention of the overbite and overjet made labiodentals easier to produce.

As this remains to be a debated topic, the team of Blasi has plans where to go next. They say that their methods can also help reconstruct how ancient written languages were spoken aloud to catalog more about the history of ancient languages.