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In most varieties of English, and indeed, many languages around the world, the phoneme /f/ and its voiced counterpart /v/ are a common pair to be found in many language’s sound inventories. At the intersection of evolutionary biology, anthropology and linguistics, researchers are starting to link the development of these sounds with the evolution of our diet.

The sounds /f/ and /v/ are classified as labiodentals which means the top row of teeth come into contact with the lower lip enough to limit the airflow coming from the diaphragm and lungs producing a turbulent ‘hissing’ sound. Researchers are arguing that the ability to make this movement with the jaw came about when agricultural methods started to develop and humans could prepare the food to make it softer. The softening of food meant that less force was required to eat food and so human jaws started to shrink.

Researchers also believe that this shrinking contributes to today’s prevalence of an overbite because shrinking mouths meant an anatomical closeness between the upper teeth and the lower lips, and this is what facilitated producing the /f/ and /v/ sounds.

To support their claims, they analysed how common /f/ and /v/ sounds were in different human populations and argued that groups such as modern hunter-gatherers which do not soften their food as much were reported to have fewer instances of /f/ and /v/ sounds statistically.

This viewpoint of course has a lot of opponents and other researchers believe that language is arbitrary and there is not enough evidence to associate diet with language evolution. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating area and students of Linguistics, Human Sciences and Anthropology would be wise to delve further into it.

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