News & Opinion | March 18, 2019 5:00 am

Why Agriculture May Have Changed the Way Humans Talk

A controversial new study suggests the rise of farming altered human biology—and, with it, speech.

A cranium of a male showing deliberate dental modifications. (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
LightRocket via Getty Images

Using biomechanics and linguistic evidence, a team of linguists at the University of Zurich is now making the case that the rise of agriculture thousands of years ago increased the odds that people would start to use sounds such as “f” and “v.” According to National Geographic, the general idea is that agriculture introduced a range of softer foods into the human diet, which then altered how humans’ teeth and jaws wore down with age, which made those sounds easier to produce.

“I hope our study will trigger a wider discussion on the fact that at least some aspects of language and speech—and I insist, some—need to be treated as we treat other complex human behaviors: laying between biology and culture,” said lead study author Damián Blasi, per National Geographic. 

If this study is confirmed, it would be among the first to show that a culturally-induced change in human biology had a ripple effect on how humans speak. Blasi and his team say that the changes in tooth wear do not necessarily translate into changes in language, but just that the shift in tooth wear improved the odds of sounds like “f” and “v” emerging.