Agriculture May Have Changed How People Speak | SciShow News

Thank you to Brilliant for sponsoring this
whole week of SciShow! [ ♪ Intro ] Humans have been talking to each other for
hundreds of thousands of years. And for the most part, researchers have assumed
we’ve all been making the same basic sounds, no matter what language we’re speaking. We’re all working with the same equipment,
after all. But a new study says that that is not the
case. It claims that back before we developed agriculture,
our teeth and jaws were different because we were chewing tough, fibrous foods, and
that meant some sounds were harder to make. Let’s just say early hunter-gatherers weren’t
going around saying “fee fi fo fum” or “veni, vedi, vici.” According to this new research, humans have
only recently made “f” and “v” sounds since they started eating softer foods, so
in the last 10,000 years or so. This actually isn’t a new idea. The hypothesis was first proposed by linguist
Charles Hockett in 1985. You see, scientists have generally assumed
that the language-producing toolbox of humans hasn’t really changed for about half a million
years. As a result, you should expect to find roughly
the same sounds in all languages. The easier a sound is to produce, the more
often it should pop up. According to linguists, the differences between
the thousands of world languages mostly resulted from things like tiny pronunciation mistakes
that spread culturally. Differences could even relate to geography,
as certain sounds are easier to make at higher elevations. But Charles Hockett put one more explanation
on the table: diet. He noticed that the languages of modern hunter-gatherer societies lacked labiodentals. Those are sounds produced by touching or nearly
touching the bottom lip to the upper teeth, like consonants like f and v in English. That led him to think differences between
languages might actually come from how the food we eat affects the way we bite. Both hominid fossils and modern hunter-gatherers
have what he called an edge bite, where the top teeth lay directly on top of the bottom
teeth, touching edge-to-edge. In childhood, humans start out with their top teeth overlapping their bottom teeth in a small overbite, or what Hockett called a
scissors bite. But over time, tough foods wear teeth down,
and to compensate for that loss, the teeth start to drift inward,
leading to an edge bite. And if your top and bottom teeth align perfectly, it’s harder to get your bottom lip into the position where “f” or a “v” sound is possible. But according to Hockett, agriculture changed
all that. We started eating less meat and more grains,
and cooking came into the picture. Softer food meant less wear and therefore helped humans keep their childlike overbite into adulthood. Scientists at the time didn’t buy Hockett’s
hypothesis. They didn’t think that wear and tear could
make that big of a difference to the human bite. Plus, archaeological evidence back then said
that the timeline didn’t add up: overbites appeared much later than agriculture did. In the end, Hockett backtracked on the idea,
agreeing that the timing was an issue. But research since has shown that wear can
change a person’s bite dramatically, and it’s now well established that overbites
became more common after the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic era. But a change in bite doesn’t necessarily
mean a change in language. You would need more research to make that
connection. So that’s exactly what an international
team did for the new study published last week in the journal Science. First, they created a 3D simulation of the
human mouth and jaw to see if an overbite really did make labiodentals easier. It did: it takes about 29% less energy to make an “f” sound with an overbite than it does with an edge bite. Next, they created a statistical model that
showed that modern hunter-gatherer societies only had about 27% as many labiodentals in
their languages as agricultural societies. And historically, they found that the statistical
likelihood of a language having labiodentals increased over time, starting several thousand
years ago, around the same time that things like dairy and cultivated grains became popular. And they became really common about 2500
years ago, when industrial milling became a thing in places like Europe. They also looked at how these sounds appeared
in those languages. Because a lot of language changes happen by
accident, they figured that labiodentals would end up replacing sounds that require a similar mouth position. They put their money on bilabials, sounds
like “p” and “m” that require you to bring your lips together. If a culture began speaking their language with an edge bite and then developed an overbite over time, it’s understandable that a “p” sound might start to become an “f” sound here and there. Sure enough, they found a lot of labiodentals
where bilabials had once been. Like, the Italian “p” is related to the
English “f”, which in part explains how “padre” became “father.” Not everyone embraces these findings, though. Some of the objections echo those from Hockett’s
time, saying that the researchers might be overstating how much diet can really affect
language. Others say that it relies on a lot of untested
assumptions, including the idea that the use of agriculture is a good shorthand for a society’s diet. But the biggest elephant in this room is the fact that tracing language differences to physical differences often leads to ethnocentrism
or flat-out racism, something linguistics has
had trouble with in the past. That’s not a reason to abandon the results
entirely, just a reason to treat them
with extra care. The researchers stand by their data, though, and say their study shows that everything humans do happens in the context of how they live. They’ve reiterated that they’re not claiming
that physiology is the only predictor of language, they just think it should get more
credit, like it does for other human traits. Basically, there’s no reason language and
speech should be an exception. In this study, the researchers used statistical
models to show that diet probably influences the sounds we make. And if you want to really understand the math
that led them to that conclusion, you might like this course on Probability from The course takes you from rolling dice to
modeling the weather, all the while explaining the math that lets us determine whether an outcome is ‘likely’. If you want to learn something quick every
day, you might try your hand at their Daily Challenges. Every day, Brilliant puts out a set of problems
to challenge your brain. And to solve them, you really have to apply
your knowledge of things like statistics, logic, and science. And right now, the first 200 people to go
sign up at will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription, so
you can view all of the Daily Challenges in the archives and unlock their dozens of problem-solving courses. You can learn, test yourself, and support
SciShow all at the same time. That sounds pretty great! [ ♪ Outro ]


  1. Go to to try out Brilliant’s Daily Challenges. The first 200 subscribers get 20% off an annual Premium subscription.

  2. Knife and fork lead to overbites. Didn't have as much pressure on the bottom teeth like ripping meat apart.

  3. Hey, so I have an edge bite because of a minor genetic anomaly (lots of people do). I have not, and have never had ANY trouble producing Fs and Vs in my entire life. I speak 8 languages, 4 of which at perceived native level. While I most certainly have an idiolect (as we all do), those particular consonants have NEVER been an issue to me or anyone else I spoke to that has this same issue I do. 29% more effort? Just how easy can a consonant be?? Cause I surely don't feel saying F is 29% harder for me than saying P. I am aware that I am oversimplifying, but still. What are they on about?

  4. It has been noted in that the neck bones of Neanderthals are different than Homo sapiens. Thus, the location and attachment of their vocal cords would be different. Despite common depiction of Neanderthals grunting, their speech would likely be higher pitched as a result.

  5. According to that theory wouldn't braces to correct overbites revert speech back to pre agricultural eras ?

  6. Then washing food also has a huge impact. The people who don't wash their food eat a lot of sand, which wears down the teeth much faster.

  7. This empirical data is obviously white supremacy and I am now very triggered because thats how I learned to treat things in school.

  8. Even if they were claiming exclusively that physiology had to do with speech, what would be wrong with that or "racist" if it were true?

  9. I always thought that people were thought the wrong way of pronouncing coffee, as they always say copi, most rural old timers still pronounce coffee and similar words with an f with a p.

  10. Love the video but I should mention that “veni vidi vici” is not a good example of v sounds because Latin V’s are pronounce like W’s

  11. Look at native american languages and the dramatic shift it the way those sound. Granted, unless you personally know a life long speaker there's a real small chance of being aware of the changes in the ways the languages are spoken. As more European food production and preparation techniques were integrated into native societies the pronunciation of the languages changed. It wasnt really thought of that way but it would make sense considering how the tribes' diets changed over the past 300 years. As someone who grew up not on the reservation and not eating more traditional foods, I quite literally cannot pronounced certain words and phrases the right way simply because I cant make those sounds.

  12. Can you make video on past present and future of agriculture . How iot can improve agriculture for middle class farmers.

  13. Darn it, how the heck do you get racism from something like this??? Who's ruining a perfectly good scientific hypothesis now?

  14. This is an interesting idea but even before agriculture there is evidence of people eating cooked foods like bread so I wonder if that would make the language spoken different

  15. Oldest joke known (found on a Babylonian scroll):

    What hangs from a man's belt and fits in a hole made just for it?

    A key. Get your mind out of the gutter.

    Now THAT's an OLD JOKE!!!!!

  16. 5:27 No, that's butthurtism; guess I can't bring up the physiological differences between my throat and a cat's as a factor explaining why cats don't sound like people because that's speciesist, right?

  17. How do studying the relation of language and the biology lead to racism? Racism is a belief of superiority based off ethnics, not accepting the (nowadays offensive) fact that we have different characteristics based off ethnics. I'm genuinely curious, but right now I'm like "wtf SciShow…"

  18. This is super interesting! The "f" and the "v" sounds didn't exist in Basque (one of the few non Indoeuropean languages in Europe, and the only one in the Iberian peninsula), and the Latin spoken in Hispania lost the "f" sound when it got there, and it seems people were pronouncing it as an "h" sound. That is why many words that in Latin had an "f" like "formica", "forno" or "farina" ended up as "hormiga", "horno" and "harina" in Spanish. Perhaps the consumption of vegetables in that area was not developed enough for people to be able to pronounce the "f" sound yet?
    In any case, it might be too soon to jump to conclusions, but it does seem like an interesting hypothesis to me.

  19. Guys please make one of the different types of drugs and their effects on the human body! (Popers, lsd, glass, etc)

  20. i was researching ancient alphabets and languages trying to make my own fictional alphabet evolved only from Sumerian. and in doing this i learned that the 'F' and 'V' are very new letters. this video explains why!

  21. Isn't there a popular Chinese breed of dog called a Chow? So if your chow is your chow, then speech = diet, no?

  22. Great now I know why every word I said when I was a little kid started with a f my mom knew better than to try to get me to say the word truck

  23. Sounds like a lot of nonsense. There are thousands of fenomes, most of which we cannot distinguish after two years of age. We learn to hear only few that we hear around us.

  24. I downvoted this when another channel tried to pass this off as science. Here's how to test, sit there and see how many different ways with your mouth you can make an F sound. There are like 8. To say that F sounds didn't exist because one method didn't exist is so entirely absurd that you can't call it science.

  25. Way back in college taking paleoanthroplogy, I wondered why all other hominids fossils had that perfect tooth alignment, but we didn't. I never knew it was a juvenile feature.

  26. You should probably just say [p] instead of p-sound, pronounce the symbols like the International Phonetic Alphabet, it might be clearer what you mean

  27. So accusations of racism impede scientific study?

    When will people learn that identity politics goes against rational scientific thought?

  28. Another reason why people who speak a language in an unfamiliar accent isn't funny and shouldn't be laughed on.

  29. You said certain types of sounds are common at altitude. I believe you are talking about ejectives, and I also believe that hypothesis is quite controversial in linguistics. There is also evidence that humid climates give rise to more tonal languages and that alcohol consumption is associated with consonant clusters.

  30. I think this theory is ridiculous. There are lots of people who speak languages that do not have "v" or "f" sounds, and have lived in agricultural societies for just as long or longer than peoples who speak a language with those sounds. It feels like a messed up way to say that those communities are somehow less evolved. Like social Darwinism is making a comeback.

  31. Humans have used fire for hundreds of thousands of years, possibly a million. The idea that cooking came into the picture only 12,000 years ago seems a bit far-fetched. Isn't there a hypothesis that better nutrition from cooked food allowed the larger brain size of modern humans to develop in the first place?

  32. If you want to hear more about the evolution of language and what Proto-Indo-European sounds like, there's a good video on Draw Curiosity :

  33. I always wondered why my braces were designed with a slight overbite. Makes sense with how we tear and chew food

  34. Hold on. We cook from far far far more time then we made aggressive agriculture (the difference here meaning that many trad folks also do lots of hoticulture)

  35. What about the hyoid bone? It's absolutely critical to human speech, that I know from A&P, but when did it show up? How?

  36. In Indonesia, either naturally or a common mispronounciation, stereotipically attributed to Sundanese which often change the F or V into P (so eF into eP or ePh). Example: philosophy which in Indonesian Filosofi (which actually sounded similar to english) is read Pilosopi (pi ~ pin, lo ~ low, so ~ sow).

    Is it cultural? Or perhaps biological?

  37. More episodes like this one, but one note: The pursuit of quantifiable knowledge about real physical things or events is 'never' racist. You start using terms that way and you get Orwellian society. Racism is action. 'If' science could verifiable prove that one "race" loosely, on average had genetics that lead to statistically significant differences in intelligence it wouldn't be 'racist' to acknowledge and explore that (not that that is a thing in real life, because it isn't, this is just a controversial example for the point.) It'd be racist, or ethnocentrism to 'act' on that knowledge or use it as an excuse to oppress people on the basis of their race, as opposed to approaching every person as a valid individual and letting what they can or cannot achieve speak for itself. The truth is not racist, pursuit of the truth is not racist, treating people differently on the basis of their race is racist.

  38. I’d be interested in knowing how this relates to the quantity of sounds. I know from school that there’s something like 3-4 times the amount of sounds in !Kung that there are in English. It seems to me like the relative sizes of the communities of speakers might select for a more standardized/ streamlined language for the agricultural societies, which have more people. I’d be interested in similar statistical models reporting on that, especially because it adds in factors that I think this study misses (ie potential overemphasis on diet as though that’s the only variable operative here, even though agriculture clearly changed quite a lot about the way people lived).

  39. That is quite probably the least far-fetched linguistic theory I've ever heard. Although my base source is my granddad, so this is not quite surprising… This still sounds pretty plausible though!

  40. Maybe the people with the overbite that could use the F / V sounds easier ended up communicating better therefore breeding more and had an influence on the outcome also. Communication including verbal communication is the biggest factor when it comes to your Status / potential money you can earn so is all a big factor when comes to your ability to attract a potential partner.

  41. It is true that the voiceless bilabial stop /p/ in PIE became a labiodental fricative /f/ in modern Germanic languages, but it should be stated that it was not an isolated change, but rather it should be seen in the context of the Germanic sound shift as described by the Grimm's law. Voiceless stops /p t k kw/ (and not only /p/) systematically became fricatives in Proto-Germanic, and an edge bite cannot explain the sound shift as a whole. Also, the phoneme /p/ did not disappear in the aforementioned languages, as expected if it were simply easier to pronounce it as an /f /. Instead, it was a chain shift in which /b/ became /p/ and /p/ became /f/. Internally, it is safe to assume that /b/ becoming /p/ caused the latter to turn into an /f/ to preserve distinctiveness. Finally, if /p/ becomes an /f/ in Germanic languages as a result of an edge bite, it would folllw that /b/ should have become a /v/ for the same reason, which is not the case. It seems like they cherry-picked the evidence to support their claim.

  42. Given indigenous Australians were separated from the rest of the world for over 40,000 years, how do there languages fit with this?

  43. Good lord… of all the objections one might have to this theory, "that's racist" is the one we're going with? Really? Since when does reality care if the truth is PC?

  44. I think diet has very little to do with how a language phonology evolves. Language dynamics should have more to do with cultural interactions.

  45. Padre and father are not linguistically related. Father has a Germanic root (vater). A better example would have been ph words in English, or pf words like pferd or empfehlen in German.

  46. The Vs in "Veni Vidi Vici" were pronounced in Rome like Ws are in modern English, so that would've marked a step in that progression but not an example of later, harsher labiodentals

  47. That’s not surprising since humans got slightly shorter after agriculture was discovered. Agriculture changed humans in so many ways with a lot of upsides and downsides.

  48. I'll be honest I don't follow your last point about it being or leading to racism or ethnocentrism, feels like you made a bit of a logical leap there

  49. Our acestor had very, very long been breathing, and presumably very long been aware of the fact that they were breathing and making some some sort of sound by simply letting that "wind" (wfffwwwv vvvfffffssssss..), watever they were calling it, out of their mouths. There were these, say, not well-defined sounds. It's air (hchaaaiiii hhch hairrrr…) they were moving from inside their lungs and into their lungs. So it's a complex matter anyway, but let's not forget basic facts as that we live above water (and marine mammals under water).
    Not saying that this video was not interesting and informative, but there was some cherry picking.

  50. I think I read somewhere that there was another theory that overbites became more common in many places after the invention/introduction of forks. Is that still a discussed theory?

  51. I wouldn't say that there was an elephant in the room. I really don't think most people pay that much attention to consonant sounds to say "oh, you don't say P or V sounds, so I'm better than you."

  52. "Padre" didn't become "father"; they both come from a common Proto-Indo-European root (*pəter-) "father" via Proto-Germanic "*fader" and "padre" via Latin "pater," but either way, this is an example of Grimm's Law, which likely has nothing to do with agriculture — unless one is to say that the Germanic peoples used more agriculture than did Italic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, etc. peoples.

  53. The mention of P sound becoming F, and B sound becoming V.
    Two points.
    1. The B sound is formed the same way as P, except that B also uses the vocal cords. Same for V and F.
    2. In Hebrew, the same letter (2nd letter in alphabet) ב is pronounced B and V. But it's pronunciation in a word depends on grammatical rules. Later, a dot was added to make it easier for the reader to know which to pronounce. The same for P and F, they are the same Hebrew letter פ, and if it's the first letter of a word it is P; if it's the last letter, it's an F. So Pharaoh in Hebrew is Paro.

  54. I only watch the ones with hank as host. The others I just give a dislike(because I don't like them).

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