Linguistically, “f,” “v,” and related sounds are thought to be relatively new. As recently as 20,000 to 100,000 years ago, humans may not have been able to produce these unique sounds.
A recent study published in Science Magazine seeks to uncover the origins of the sounds. By linking to the development of agriculture, changes in the human diet, and ultimately changes in bite, the authors of the article conclude that these changes allowed for the “f” and “v” sounds to develop. The following developments are what may have led to the development of “f” and “v.”
• Development of Agricultural: The first step in the process that likely led to the creation of the “f” and “v” sounds is the development of agriculture. Rather than relying on hunting and gathering, humans began to cultivate food, which may have provided the foundations for the birth of the “f” and “v” sounds.
This theory is further supported by linguist Charles Hockett’s observations that “f” and “v” were less common in hunter-gatherer societies than farming communities.
• Softer Foods: Once humans began cultivating crops, their diets changed substantially. The human diet began to lean more heavily on soft foods, like grains.
• Change in Bite: Over time, the change in diets likely led to an evolution in bites, allowing for farmers to produce the “f” and “v” sounds.
While hunter-gatherer children may have had overbites, in adulthood, they usually developed an edge-to-edge bite. In other words, their front upper teeth rested directly on top of their front lower teeth, making it harder to produce sounds in which the upper teeth rest on the lower lip, like “f” and “v.”
However, in farming cultures, adults may have continued to maintain an overbite, allowing them to produce these sounds with greater ease.
Criticisms of the Theory
While some linguists support the role of agriculture in shaping language, others feel that the influence has been exaggerated. Some linguists even fear that investigating the role of agriculture could inadvertently lean on ethnocentric interpretations. Additionally, cooking could have the same effect of softening food, so it could be problematic to postulate that the development of these sounds is based solely on agriculture.
So why does it matter how “f” and “v” began? There are still a lot of mysteries about how language developed and evolved, and the findings of this study hint that perhaps biological factors should be considered in greater depth. However, criticism also highlights that further studies should tread lightly to ensure that ethnocentrism and racism don’t come into play.
Perhaps one of the best ways to gain personal insight into language is to study languages yourself. ALTA offers quality language classes that can give you additional insight into the traits and features of different languages. Classes are available both online and at ALTA’s headquarters in Atlanta.
Meredith Kreisa is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer with a love of languages, learning, and culture.