Offbeat: Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins - PressFrom - Canada
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OffbeatDid Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins

07:50  15 march  2019
07:50  15 march  2019 Source:   nytimes.com

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The evolutionary emergence of language in the human species has been a subject of speculation for several centuries. The topic is difficult to study because of the lack of direct evidence.

Some words in language obviously did derive from imitation of natural sounds associated with some object: Chinook Indian word for heart--tun-tun, Basque word for knife: ai-ai (literally ouch-ouch). Each of these iconic words would derive from an index, a sign whose form is naturally associatied with its

Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins© Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images A skeleton dating to the Neolithic Era in the Chahar-Fasl Museum in Arak, Iran.

Thousands of years ago, some of our ancestors left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and started to settle down. They grew vegetables and grains for stews or porridge, kept cows for milk and turned it into cheese, and shaped clay into storage pots.

Had they not done those things, would we speak the languages and make the sounds that we now hear today? Probably not, suggests a study published Thursday in Science.

“Certain sounds like these ‘f’ sounds are recent, and we can say with fairly good confidence that 20,000 or 100,000 years ago, these sounds just simply didn’t exist,” said Balthasar Bickel, a linguist at the University of Zurich and an author of the new research.

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HISTORY OF LANGUAGE Words on the brain Origins of language Linguistic groups Language and race Enclaves of language The origins of human language will perhaps remain for ever obscure. Language and race. A shared linguistic family does not imply any racial link, though in modern times

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The study concluded that the transition to eating softer foods changed how bites developed as people aged. The physical changes, the authors said, made it slightly easier for farmers to make certain sounds, like “f” and “v.”

Through various other processes that the study did not directly address, these sounds made their way into about half the languages used today. The study’s authors called for greater consideration of biological factors in studying the development of human language.

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Language change is variation over time in a language ' s phonological, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features. It is studied by historical linguistics, sociolinguistics

Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so

A number of linguists agreed that the findings are plausible, but others said the study’s broader conclusions about agriculture’s effect on language may be overstated. Some cautioned against interpretations that may unwittingly restate discredited ethnocentric or racist views that in the past have tarred the study of linguistics.

Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins© ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - This Jan. 8, 2003 file photo shows a reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton, left, on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Languages evolve as societies develop and change, but the sounds we utter are also shaped, literally, by the placement of our jaw – and that is influenced by how we chew our food, researchers say in a report released Thursday, March 14, 2019, in the journal Science. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Dr. Bickel and his colleagues revisited a question about the origins of language: Were some of the diverse sounds we hear today acquired only recently? While most linguists think language abilities are universal and haven’t really changed over the course of human history, the new study suggested that over the past few thousand years, agriculture fostered the arrival of new sounds in human voices.

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English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon settlers.

" Language -ready modern children learn vocabulary voraciously before they begin to make grammatical utterances several words long. For those of us with an interest in language conceived of in this way, our task must include working out all the intricate ways in which gesture is used in relation to speech

In 1985, a linguist named Charles Hockett observed that “f” and “v” sounds appeared less frequently or were absent in the languages of some hunter-gatherers. He proposed that dietary changes, promoted by the spread of agriculture, may have transformed teeth and jaws, making it easier for people to produce some sounds and more difficult to articulate others.

But many criticized Dr. Hockett’s idea, which he ultimately abandoned — and that was even before linguists began favoring the brain’s role in guiding language over social or physical influences.

In the time since, however, researchers learned that through gradual processes, diet may shape human bite. But the connection to sounds we make remained unclear.

Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins© 2016 Anadolu Agency ARAK, IRAN - OCTOBER 5: A skeleton from 7,500BC is seen at Chahar-Fasl Museum in Arak, Iran on October 5, 2016. Human skeletons from 7,500BC have become a visitor attraction in the city of Arak in Iran's central province. The male skeletons from 7500BC, which have been on display around a week at the Chahar Fasl Museum in Arak, bring back the date humans are first known to have lived in the central province back 4000 more years from 3500BC into the Neolithic Era (8000-5500BC). (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In the new study, researchers pored over thousands of languages. With computer simulations of differently shaped mouths and other techniques gathered from paleoanthropology, linguistics, speech science and evolutionary biology, the scientists found that eating softer foods, associated with agriculture, changed adult bites.

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For those living on a hunter-gatherer diet, overbites in the jaws and teeth in youth were often replaced in adulthood by what are called edge-to-edge bites, where front teeth sit atop one another. But with a softer diet, overbites may persist into adulthood.

With an overbite, pronouncing sounds called labiodentals, which require moving the bottom lip against the top teeth — think of the words “fava” or “fever” — is about 30 percent easier. Over thousands of years, more of these sounds could have made their way into language.

This scenario is more probable than not, the researchers said, although they concede it may not occur universally. “Some languages will develop labiodentals,” said Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich. “Some languages don’t.”

Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins© 2019 Horacio Villalobos - Corbis LISBON, PORTUGAL - MARCH 14: A model of human brain is seen on display during a guided visit for journalists to 'Brain – wider than the sky' Interactive Exhibition, curated by Rui Oliveira, in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on March 14, 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. The exhibition, running from March 16 to June 11, 2019, is a journey around the brain: its origin, the complexity of the human mind, the challenges of artificial minds. It helps visitors to see the evolution of the brain, a giant interactive synapse, fragments of an Egyptian papyrus, a brain orchestra, robots, interactive activities, historical and paleontological documents, three-dimensional models and infographics. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

The findings challenge the idea that the sounds we make are more related to human evolution and how it shaped our brains, a subject the paper doesn’t dwell on.

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Our hominin ancestors may have cooked food, for example, which made it softer. That contributed to changes in the shape of the skull and mandible, which made way for a more complex brain long before agriculture influenced diet, said Jordi Marcé-Nogué, who studies jaw evolution in primates at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

“What came first?” he asked. “The changes in the speech, or the changes in the brain?”

Ray Jackendoff, a linguist at Tufts University who was not involved in the study, said the group’s finding that the ease of saying some sounds may vary with diet “is interesting but not earthshaking.” That different cultures may have uttered certain sounds more often than others “doesn’t say much about the deep history of language.”

Other cultural and social factors, like adopting sounds from neighbors, also may have contributed to changes in language, the study’s authors said. For example, when hunter-gatherer groups and agrarian groups mixed, so did their sounds.

And others point out that labiodental sounds have even been found among hunter-gatherers with edge-to-edge bites, like some Yanomami people of South America, who live mostly as isolated hunter-gatherers, fishers and horticulturists.

Other linguists also point out that the study rests on untested assumptions, like just how much these small bite changes might influence sounds, the types of errors they could produce, the age at which hunter-gathers’ teeth wear down, and the notion that agriculture is a useful proxy for diet. The role of cognitive factors, including neural control of speech organs, also goes unaddressed.

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The authors respond that they are not minimizing the roles played by culture, society or cognition in the development of language. But they say that physical differences between people deserve as much attention in the study of human language development as they do in research into the communication systems of animals.

Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins© 2016 Anadolu Agency ARAK, IRAN - OCTOBER 5: A skeleton from 7,500BC is seen at Chahar-Fasl Museum in Arak, Iran on October 5, 2016. Human skeletons from 7,500BC have become a visitor attraction in the city of Arak in Iran's central province. The male skeletons from 7500BC, which have been on display around a week at the Chahar Fasl Museum in Arak, bring back the date humans are first known to have lived in the central province back 4000 more years from 3500BC into the Neolithic Era (8000-5500BC). (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Some linguists worry that if not handled with extreme care, subsequent studies of the physical or biological differences of language could invigorate ethnocentric beliefs that have plagued linguistics in the past, especially if research is publicly interpreted as making value judgments of different groups’ languages.

“The risk here is a bias to focus on positive benefits or what is gained by individuals in agrarian societies, rather than also considering whatever benefits individuals in hunter-gatherer societies might have,” said Adam Albright, a linguist at M.I.T.

Dr. Albright said the current study considered those questions, and he hopes that future inquiries in this area will also investigate what sounds might have been left behind in the shift to agriculture.

Dr. Bickel agreed: “It will be just as interesting to investigate which sounds might have gone lost with the transition to softer diets.”

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