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Thread: Speaking the f and v sounds was enabled by eating soft foods

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Speaking the f and v sounds was enabled by eating soft foods

    Humans couldn't pronounce 'f' and 'v' sounds before farming developed | New Scientist noting Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration | Science
    From Science magazine:
    In 1985, the linguist Charles Hockett proposed that the use of teeth and jaws as tools in hunter-gatherer populations makes consonants produced with lower lip and upper teeth (“f” and “v” sounds) hard to produce. He thus conjectured that these sounds were a recent innovation in human language. Blasi et al. combined paleoanthropology, speech sciences, historical linguistics, and methods from evolutionary biology to provide evidence for a Neolithic global change in the sound systems of the world's languages. Spoken languages have thus been shaped by changes in the human bite configuration owing to changes in dietary and behavioral practices since the Neolithic.
    We are born with an overbite. But the tough foods eaten by our Paleolithic (foraging) ancestors made us do a lot of jaw exercise, and that gave us an edge-to-edge bite in adulthood. But in the places with Neolithic (farming) technology or later, the softer foods that that technology made possible made that exercise less necessary, giving us an overbite in adulthood.

    Making a labiodental requires about 30% less muscle effort with a typical overbite than with edge-to-edge front teeth, and one finds that people recently with Paleolithic technology have only 1/4 the likelihood of labiodentals than people with Neolithic technology and later.

    This is also evident in the history of language families with long histories, like Indo-European. Labiodentals developed in several of the IE descendant languages, but the ancestral IE language is reconstructed as having none. In particular, /f/, as linguists like to write it, developed in ancestral Germanic, Latin, and medieval / modern Greek. I looked elsewhere and found a lack of the sound in several other families' ancestors, despite some of their descendants having it. I checked Semitic, Uralic, Turkic, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Bantu, Pama-Nyungan, Uto-Aztecan, Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Eskimo-Aleut.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Complete nonsense. I can think of three traditional foraging cultures just off the top of my head that have labiodentals in their own ethnonym...

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Complete nonsense. I can think of three traditional foraging cultures just off the top of my head that have labiodentals in their own ethnonym...
    But are labiodentals very common among such people? One could look in a list of ethnonyms for people with different sorts of technology.

    Or do what I did, look in reconstructed phonologies of language families. Labiodentals are rare in them, though they have plenty of labials: /p/, /b/, /w/.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Complete nonsense. I can think of three traditional foraging cultures just off the top of my head that have labiodentals in their own ethnonym...
    But are labiodentals very common among such people? One could look in a list of ethnonyms for people with different sorts of technology.
    For it to be true to say that people of a certain cultural stereotype "couldn't pronounce" such and such, there would have to be NO contrary cases. In truth, phonemes are habituated; you can potentially speak any language and produce all sounds at birth, not until you are several months old do you start habituating to using some over others.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    That's NOT what this paper's authors are claiming. They are claiming that these sounds are more difficult to pronounce, even if not impossible, and that this difficulty explains their rarity in the languages of people who were recently hunter-gatherers. As a comparison, labials are very common: the consonants /p/, /b/, and /m/, and the semivowel /w/.

    It also does not address the rarity of the sounds in many protolanguages. How many should I have to list?

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    That's NOT what this paper's authors are claiming. They are claiming that these sounds are more difficult to pronounce, even if not impossible, and that this difficulty explains their rarity in the languages of people who were recently hunter-gatherers. As a comparison, labials are very common: the consonants /p/, /b/, and /m/, and the semivowel /w/.

    It also does not address the rarity of the sounds in many protolanguages. How many should I have to list?
    The article you link is titled "Humans Couldn't Pronounce 'F' and 'V' Sounds Before Farming Developed". This is directly inaccurate and plays into tired colonialist language stereotyping.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    The article you link is titled "Humans Couldn't Pronounce 'F' and 'V' Sounds Before Farming Developed". This is directly inaccurate and plays into tired colonialist language stereotyping.
    I concede that that article is very misleadingly titled. But you ought to look beyond that.


    I researched some protolanguages with Wikipedia -- it has a surprisingly large amount on that subject. So I'll do research here. There is a complication, a f-like sound that is not labiodental. I sometimes find /ɸ/, a bilabial version of labiodental /f/, a voiceless /w/. Maori has that sound, where it is spelled "wh".

    So here goes, with /f/ or /ɸ/ present being bolded

    • Proto-Indo-European
      • Proto-Germanic
      • Proto-Celtic
      • Proto-Italic
      • Ancient Greek, Greek, early centuries CE
      • Proto-Balto-Slavic, Proto-Slavic
      • Proto-Indo-Iranian (Proto-Iranian, Proto-Indic)
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic (/f/ may be present)
      • Proto-Semitic (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ge'ez)
      • Ancient Egyptian
      • Proto-Berber
    • Proto-Uralic
    • Proto-Turkic
    • Mongolian
    • Korean
    • Japanese
    • Proto-Kartvelian
    • Proto-North-Caucasian (Proto-Northeast-Caucasian, Proto-Northwest-Caucasian)
    • Proto-Dravidian
    • Sino-Tibetan
      • Tibeto-Burman
      • Old Chinese, Late Middle Chinese
    • Proto-Austroasiatic
    • Proto-Austronesian, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, Proto-Oceanic, Proto-Polynesian
    • Proto-Bantu
    • Proto-Eskimo–Aleut (has /v/)
    • Proto-Athabaskan (bilabial consonants rare)
    • Proto-Algic, Proto-Algonquian
    • Proto-Iroquoian (no bilabial consonants)
    • Proto-Muskogean
    • Proto-Siouan
    • Proto-Penutian
    • Proto-Uto-Aztecan
    • Proto-Mayan
    • Proto-Oto-Manguean
    • Proto-Macro-Chibchan
    • Quechuan

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post

    The article you link is titled "Humans Couldn't Pronounce 'F' and 'V' Sounds Before Farming Developed". This is directly inaccurate and plays into tired colonialist language stereotyping.
    All it's playing into is the sensationalist hype in an effort to increase profit. It's another example of how profit motive is incompatible with the public's scientific literacy. The New Scientist is known for its increasingly low intellectual standards, such as when it ran a cover a decade ago claiming "Darwin was wrong!"

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    I agree that that is sensation-mongering. I also looked in WALS Online, and I could find no discussion of labiodentals.

    Some more languages, continuing to use Wikipedia in most cases.
    • Proto-Arawakan
    • Arapesh
    • Iatmül (has /v/)
    • Valley Yokuts
    • Southern Sierra Miwok
    • Mutsun
    • Proto-Chimakuan
    • Kutenai
    • Proto-Hmong-Mien
    • Macushi (has /v/)
    • Mandinka
    • Defaka
    • Shipibo (has /v/)
    • Lushootseed
    • Tucano
    • Meriam
    • Sikaritai
    • Proto-Mixe–Zoquean
    • Kalaw Lagaw Ya
    • Xavante
    • Totonacan
    • Zarma
    • Evenki
    • Manchu
    • Ket

    Some of what I listed as /v/ is actually /β/, a voiced version of /ɸ/.

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    Contributor Speakpigeon's Avatar
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    A crucial point I think is whether having your lower front teeth aligned with your upper front teeth really makes the /f/ sound more difficult and then how much more.

    Me, I can't tell. How do you go about assessing how much more difficult it is if nobody alive today still has his lower and upper front teeth aligned? Some people do?

    Also, it could be interesting to look at f-words (). What could have been the cause of certain words, perhaps relatively suddenly, evolving towards the /f/ sound? Is there any thing that's designated by a f-word is most languages? Not "father", not "food", not "fuck" for example (resp. père, nourriture, baiser in French).
    EB

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