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Correlation between food, jaw evolution, and language

By Joana Atanasova

It takes a minor inconvenience to appreciate something we take for granted, I’ll tell you that. In this case I am talking about a sin of gluttony — burning one’s tongue on hot food. Now, we’ve all been in the situation where one’s food has been so tasty looking, but boiling hot, that one cannot resist to bite into, even though one knows good and well it’s going to burn one’s mouth. Of course, once that happens, one finds it hard to speak for the rest of the day as a result of one’s sinful acts, and when one’s a linguist, one starts to wonder if perhaps food had something to do with how we speak today? Coincidentally I had just stumbled upon a very interesting article about this which fuelled up my curiousity even more.

Let’s start with going back way into Palaeolithic times when giant birds were everywhere, other sabre-tooth animals still existed, and humans ate mainly for survival. You can imagine their diets consisted of very, very unprocessed foods — raw or barely cooked meats, nuts, seeds, and whatever else they could forage, gather or farm. Unprocessed foods tend to be harder to chew, I’m not even going to comment on their taste qualities, but hey, they didn’t know any better at the time. This difficulty with chewing that ancient man experienced, required a sturdier, harder bite. Now, it wasn’t an underbite as we had already evolved from that, but it was an edge-to-edge bite — surprisingly it’s a leftover genetic mutation in some modern humans (myself included) that luckily is cured with a quick dentist or orthodontist’s visit. The edge-to-edge bite allowed for a much harder and stronger bite, while protecting the teeth, however it doesn’t allow for some sounds to be made — like the f’s and the v’s.

F’s and v’s, also called ‘labiodental’ sounds, are, as you may have already suspected, sounds that we make when our top set of teeth make contact with our lower lip. You can imagine that an edge-to-edge bite can’t physically produce these sounds, or at least it would take a lot of effort to produce them. Humans had to evolve an overbite in order to be able to produce these sounds with ease, so how did we do that? It’s a very simple and logical reason — food. The development of farming created more possibilities for food to be processed in different ways — cultivated wheat started being ground into flour, meat started to be cooked as humans actually had time to play with things aside from survival like cooking when living inside a safe environment, as farms were surrounded by walls, and the people received some protection from wild animals, enemies, and the elements. More processing meant less biting, chewing, and gnawing — meat cooked until coming off the bone, yoghurt, bread, different mashed things, less chewing meant less jaw straining, and less need for a strong and powerful bite. All this resulted in evolution striking once again and giving us the overbite that we know and love today (a recent study published by has confirmed this theory and explores in depth and in a very academic fashion, so you can read the paper for free on their website further if you’re interested). The overbite, on the other hand, gave us brand new sounds to work with!

It’s interesting to think about what language might have sounded like before the introduction of these new sounds, in general in previous issues I’ve explored what language might have sounded like for our prehistoric ancestors, but these new foundings put proto languages into perspective, and also explain language development such as the switch from the Proto-Indo-European ‘patēr’ to Old English ‘faeder’ about 1500 years ago.

Naturally genetic mutations happen in our days, so why haven’t we discovered new sounds just yet? The answer is quite simple — nowadays when science is widely available for everybody, we just aren’t allowing language to change in that way as we have dentists, orthodontists, speech therapists — all these professional make sure that our jaws, teeth, lips are healthy, in line, and able to produce all the sounds we need to speak properly, so even if there is a type of diversion, it’s up to them to fix it. But what about when genes are in line, but there are other factors involved?

Let’s explore a phenomenon in the Mursi tribe people of Ethiopia, Africa. The Mursi are known for an extreme body modification amongst their women — the stretching of the lower lip using a wooden or clay plate. I’m sure at some point you’ve seen a photo on National Geographic as it is a true phenomenon of the human body with some plates reaching 12cm in diameter! This practice exists since as far as anyone can remember and it is said that it’s a sign of the woman’s bravery and fertility, though some hypotheses claim that the practice was picked up to disfigure their women so that slave traders had no interest in them, but nothing has be theorized to my knowledge. You can imagine that it has a lot to do with how their language sounds like as it renders the lower lip completely unusable for half the population. In return the language has evolved so that labiodentals and labials aren’t used at all, for the exception of ‘b’ and ‘m’ sounds in some places, and the reason behind it is that if they existed, the communication would be horrifying if not nonexistent, especially since Mursi has no written form.

On the one hand we have a simple, yet complex in its execution historical reason as to how language evolved and gave us new sounds, and on the other hand we have a language evolving around cultural practices. One thing, however, that we can all be sure of as we see it every day, is that language can evolve if we let it. Should we and how it would evolve are completely different questions. The world is getting progressively more global, as long as you have a mobile device or laptop you can freely communicate with everybody, even now you can find frankenwords in everyday informal speech in almost every language, that will make any teacher wrinkle their eyebrows in visible distaste.

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