Holy fudge: soft foods helped humans form ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds – study

Diet of porridge and gruel shaped human faces, which diversified English language

The texts of the 16th century were first to record the F-word for posterity. It appeared in William Dunbar’s poem A Brash of Wowing in 1503 and later, thanks to an angry monk, in a note scrawled in the margin of a 1528 copy of De Officiis, Cicero’s moral manifesto.

But according to researchers, the English language might never have enjoyed a richness of F-words had it not been for early farmers and the food processing they favoured. Dairy products and other soft foods, such as gruel, porridge, soup and stews, helped shape our faces, the researchers claim, and allowed us to form the sounds “f” and “v”, known as labiodental fricatives.

The international team reached their conclusion while testing a theory put forward by the late American linguist Charles Hockett. In 1985, Hockett proposed that the overwhelming absence of sounds such as “f” and “v” in languages spoken by hunter-gatherers was partly down to their diet.

He argued that chewing tough foods subjected the mouth to strong forces that wore down the teeth and caused the lower jaw to grow larger, eventually leading the lower teeth to align with those in the upper jaw. Without the usual overbite, it is hard to press the bottom lip against the upper teeth, making “f” and “v” sounds unviable.

Hockett’s theory was rejected at the time but as the researchers gathered evidence for their study they came to suspect he was right. Computer models of the jaw showed that with a normal human overbite, it takes 29% less energy to form labiodental consonants than when the upper and lower teeth are aligned.

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