Damián Blasi at the University of Zurich and a research associate here at HRAF has just published a paper with colleagues in Science reporting significant differences in the frequency of “F” and “V” sounds in language; hunter-gatherer languages rarely have these sounds (Blasi et al. 2019). The researchers present broad support for the theory that “F” and “V” sounds emerged with the transition to agriculture, probably because of dietary changes to softer foods. Softer foods lead to the tooth formation most of us are used to—the top front teeth come down in front of the bottom front teeth when the mouth is closed (Figure 1, right). However, harder foods that hunter-gatherers traditionally ate prevented this overbite; the edge of the top teeth simply met with the edge of the bottom teeth (Figure 1, left). While the hunter-gatherers’ tooth formation would have made it easier to tear into harder foods, it also would have made the “F” and “V” sounds about 30% more difficult, according to the study, and thus less likely to occur in language. To understand why, try making an “F” or “V” sound without letting your top front teeth come down in front of your bottom teeth!
The research by Blasi and colleagues joins the relatively new practice of using systematic worldwide cross-cultural tests of theory to explain why languages differ or are similar in patterned ways. Especially new is the idea that material or mundane factors in life such as climate, the physical environment, or the way that people make a living, can affect the languages they speak. This line of research got a major boost in the late 1990s from a non-linguist Robert Munroe, who like many cross-cultural researchers, believed that much of human behavior is explainable. Working with linguist colleagues, Munroe found links between warmer climate and the higher number of consonant-vowel syllables in language as well as more sonority of sounds (Munroe, Munroe, and Winters 1996; Munroe and Silander 1999; Fought et al. 2004; Munroe, Fought and Fought 2000; Munroe, Fought, and Macaulay 2009). Carol and Melvin Ember (2000a, 2000b, 2007) added additional environmental parameters by considering thickness of vegetation interacting with cold and mountainous terrain. More recently, Caleb Everett (2013) found that living at high elevation predicts ejective consonants and, with colleagues Damián Blasi and Seán Roberts (Everett, Blasi, and Roberts 2015), found that more humid environments predict tonal languages.
See our recap of a related presentation Damián gave at HRAF last summer. Also, check out summaries of other cross-cultural studies on language in Explaining Human Culture.
Blasi,, D.E., S. Moran, S. R. Moisik, P. Widmer, D. Dediu, B. Bickel. 2019.
Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration. Science 15 March. DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218
Ember, Melvin, and Carol R. Ember. 2000a. “Cross-Language Predictors of Consonant-Vowel Syllables.” American Anthropologist, American Anthropologist, 101: 730–42.
Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. 2000b. “High CV Score: Regular Rhythm or Sonority?” American Anthropologist, American Anthropologist, 102: 848–51.
Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. 2007. “Climate, Econiche, and Sexuality: Influences on Sonority in Language.” American Anthropologist, American Anthropologist, 109: 180–85.
Everett, Caleb. 2013. “Evidence for direct geographic influences on linguistic sounds: The case of ejectives.” PloS one 8, no. 6: e65275.
Everett, Caleb, Damián E. Blasi, and Seán G. Roberts. 2015. “Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 5: 1322-1327.
Fought, John G., Robert L. Munroe, Carmen R. Fought, and Erin M. Good. 2004. “Sonority and Climate in a World Sample of Languages: Findings and Prospects.” Cross-Cultural Research, Cross-cultural Research, 38: 27–51.
Munroe, Robert L., Carmen R. Fought, and John G. Fought. 2000. “Rhythmicity or Sonority: Response to Ember and Ember’s ‘Cross-Language Predictors of Consonant-Vowel Syllables.’” American Anthropologist, American Anthropologist, 102: 844–48.
Munroe, Robert L., John G. Fought, and Ronald K.S. Macaulay. 2009. “Warm Climates and Sonority Classes: Not Simply More Vowels and Fewer Consonants.” Cross-Cultural Research, Cross-cultural Research, 43: 123–33.
Munroe, Robert L., Ruth H. Munroe, and Stephen Winters. 1996. “Cross-Cultural Correlates of the Consonant-Vowel (cv) Syllable.” Cross-Cultural Research, Cross-cultural Research, 30: 60–83.
Munroe, Robert L., and Megan Silander. 1999. “Climate and the Consonant-Vowel (cv) Syllable: A Replication Within Language Families.” Cross-Cultural Research, Cross-cultural Research, 33: 43–62.