Human speech sounds are shared worldwide, and a new study suggests that ancestral human diet changes might have caused “f” and “v” sounds in global languages.

A group of international scientists, which published their findings in Science, are contradicting the theory stating that all possible human sounds have remained the same since humans emerged 300,000 years ago, CNN reported.

The team was inspired by linguist Charles Hockett, who in 1985, proposed that early hunter-gatherers would have a difficult time saying “f” and “v” sounds, due to their edge-to-edge bite, which involves the teeth meeting evenly at the front of the mouth. Even though hunter-gatherers were born with overbites, they would eventually shift to edge-to-edge bites, since they consumed a harder and tougher diet. Hockett was suggesting that “f” and “v” sounds were probably relatively new to human speech, especially when early humans started eating softer foods.

Scientists decided to test Hockett’s hypothesis, but expanded it by analyzing linguistics, anthropology, and phonetics, Gizmodo noted. The team, which used biomechanical computer models that copied human speech, discovered that softer foods enabled humans to keep their overbite, which would place the upper teeth a little bit in front of the lower teeth.

“In Europe, our data suggests that the use of labiodentals has increased dramatically only in the last couple of millennia, correlated with the rise of food processing technology such as industrial milling,” Steven Moran, the study’s author, said in a University of Zurich press release. “The influence of biological conditions on the development of sounds has so far been underestimated.”

The team found that having an overbite makes it easier to pronounce labiodentals, also known as consonants generated with the lower lip and the upper teeth. According to the team, it required 29 precent less energy to produce consonants with an overbite. With the help of a soft foods diet and an overbite, “f” and “v” sounds could have become more popular in the past and led to some of the words spoken today, including “vacuum” and the “F-word.” 

“Our results shed light on complex causal links between cultural practices, human biology and language,” Balthasar Bickel, project leader and UZH professor, said in the press release. “They also challenge the common assumption that, when it comes to language, the past sounds just like the present.”

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