Research Article

Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration

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Science  15 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6432, eaav3218
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218

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  • RE: Emergent labiodentals are no factor in language evolution
    • Riny Huijbregts, Generative linguist (retired), Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS (UIL-OTS), Utrecht University, The Netherlands

    Blasi and colleagues (1) argue that Hockett's conjecture is correct that "labiodentals are overwhelmingly absent in languages whose speakers live from hunting and gathering" (2). On their view, a relatively effortless articulation of labiodentals was facilitated by a post-Neolithic reduction of tooth wear following the production of soft food (1), resulting in the "post-Neolithic emergence of overbite and overjet persistence and reduced effort when producing labiodentals” (1). From this they conclude that a "uniformitarian assumption" cannot be relied upon when making claims about language universals and language evolution. On this account, language is shaped by culturally induced changes in human biology, here a change in subsistence from hunting-gathering to agriculture, leading to a modified articulatory base with less tooth wear.

    If correct, the authors’ major empirical claim seems to be the debunking of the Flintstone myth. Lacking the necessary overbite configuration, pre-Neolithic Wilma could not have pronounced her husband's name Fred or the family name without great effort. Furthermore, the worldwide association between subsistence type and labiodentals, accounting for the relative absence of labiodentals in languages spoken by hunter-gatherers, and the relative increase of labiodentals during the history of Indo-European, matching the spread of agriculture in early Indo-European societies, both fall into place (1).

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Some remarks on the analysis of labiodentals in Indo-European
    • Alexander Piperski, Associate Professor, National Research University Higher School of Economics / Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia

    I think that Blasi et al. managed to discover and prove the existence of a very interesting connection between linguistics, biology, anthropolgy, and other fields of study. I am not arguing against the main points of the paper, but, as a linguist, I would like to focus on the section entitled “Increase of labiodentals during the history of Indo-European” and raise some concerns about it.

    Historical linguistics is a forensic enterprise to a significant extent, especially when it deals with sparse data from earlier times. Given this nature of historical linguistics, a statement like “This sound should be reconstructed as /a/ rather than /o/ based on the spelling of two words in some manuscript and on a loanword from a neighboring language” is more informative and meaniningful than a statement like “This sound was an /a/ with a probability of 20% or an /o/ with a probability of 80%”, even though the latter statement is seemingly more scientific. For this reason, a reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European phonological system based on stochastic character mappping is hardly able to give us any new insights. Indo-European is a good testing ground for statstical models of language change adapted from biology, because the history of this family is well-known. If a model yields plausible results for Indo-European, it is justified to apply it to lesser-studied language families; if it contradicts the general opinion on some aspect of Indo-European, it is most likely that the...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Human oral anatomy preadapted to the production of consonants
    • Marc Verhaegen, Medical Doctor, Study Center for Anthropology, B-2580 Belgium.

    Very interesting thinking, thanks a lot. This reminds of our proposal (Vaneechoutte 2011) that human oral anatomy, probably at least since Homo erectus (small oral opening, fleshy lips, incisiform canines, closed tooth-row, globular tongue, vaulted and smooth palate, descended hyoid - as opposed to ape oral anatomy), preadapted to the production of consonants.
    Human speech has different preadaptations (duetting, voluntary breathing, vocal learning, brain enlargement, oral closures) which evolved at different times. When early-Pleistocene Homo dispersed intercontinentally along African and Eurasian coasts and rivers (continental shelf hypothesis), their lifestyle included bipedal wading and shallow diving for littoral foods, which are extremely rich in brain-specific nutrients such as DHA (Cunnane 2005). Littoral foods such as shellfish - which had to be opened with stone tools, and had to be sucked, not chewed - not only help explain archaic Homo's stone tool technology and brain enlargement, but also our small dentition and mouth (Hockett 1967) and masticatory reduction (MYH16 gene inactivation, probably begin-Pleistocene); which allowed our oral passage to be closed at different places (labial, dental, palatal etc.) which later became the articulation places for producing consonants, one of the preadaptations for human speech.
    For references, google e.g. "Seafood, diving, song and speech 2011 Vaneechoutte" or "Speech originS 2017 Verhaege...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.