Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe. Could the food you eat affect your pronunciation? A new study suggests that the change from primitive foodstuffs to modern delicacies may have altered human jaws and mouths—and thereby the very sounds we utter.
The study of language is linguistics. Often, linguistics focuses on cultural factors like background and socioeconomic status (wealth or lack of it). But Balthasar Bickel, a linguist at the University of Zurich and co-author of a study in the journal Science, says language is also “a biological phenomenon.”
Researchers compared Stone Age and modern skulls. They created computer models of how different jaw placements allow mouths to make different sounds.
Here’s what they found:
Stone Age adult skulls are different from modern skulls. The older skulls have upper and lower teeth closing directly on top of each other. Scientists credit that configuration mostly to tooth wear from crunching hard foods, such as raw vegetables, seeds, and grains.
More recent skulls show some overbite—the top teeth protrude over and in front of the bottom teeth when the mouth is closed. Researchers say this alignment could be due to the modern diet of softer foods such as gruel, cooked veggies, and cheese.
Researchers point out that before modern crop farming and cooking methods, humans likely chewed raw or minimally cooked foods. All that intense chewing moved the jaw. A different jaw position, they say, affects which sounds are easily pronounced.
Consider the sounds of the letters f and v. Put your upper and lower front teeth directly on top of each other and say “favor.” It’s difficult without lifting the lower lip to contact the upper teeth.
Researchers studied languages and dialects spoken from Iceland to India. Then they analyzed roughly 2,000 languages to identify which sounds get used most and least often and where.
They charted how the f and v sounds occur in a rising number of languages over time. As societies developed agriculture and traded in tough food for softer fare, researchers found the sounds became more common.
Bickel and other researchers need to do more study. They hope to investigate the opposite theory: “which sounds might have gone lost with the transition to softer diets.”
Not everyone believes the study’s conclusions. Some point out that factors other than tooth wear affect jaw alignment.
But Steven Moran, a lead author of the study, says the take-away holds: “We can’t take for granted that spoken languages sound the same today as they did in the distant past.”
Spoken sounds may have changed, but one thing lasts: “The word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:25)