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: Regarding eLetter "RE: Some remarks on the analysis of labiodentals in Indo-European" posted by Alexander Piperski.

    We have posted a response on OSF:

    https://osf.io/fhprd/

    Best,

    - The authors

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: RE: Labiodental fricatives /f v/ are less present in languages having a small number of consonants

    This eLetter is based on a Technical Comment by Berthommier and Boë that was rejected by the editors of Science after we (the authors) of the original manuscript were given the chance to respond.

    In short and in light of B & B's false criticisms, we did:

    1. Control for the number of segments
    2. Discuss the case of Australia (at length)
    3. Discuss various other misunderstandings in their comment

    Therefore, we have updated our original response and made it available on OSF (where we published our supplementary materials, data, and code):

    https://osf.io/s45bx/

    - The authors

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Regarding eLetter "RE: 2 reasons to refute Hockett's hypothesis that bite configuration affects human sound evolution" posted by Sergei Tarasov.

    We have posted a response on bioRxiv:

    https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.27.965400

    Best,

    - The authors

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Regarding eLetter "RE: Labiodental mechanics" posted by Maziar Tajick

    Regarding eLetter "RE: Labiodental mechanics" posted by Maziar Tajick

    We have posted a response on OSF:

    https://osf.io/m8jb3/

    Best,

    - The authors

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: 2 reasons to refute Hockett's hypothesis that bite configuration affects human sound evolution
    • Sergei Tarasov, curator, Finnish Museum of Natural History (LUOMUS)
    • Other Contributors:
      • Josef Uyeda, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech

    Blasi et al. ground their conclusion on evidence from ethnography, historical linguistics and speech biomechanics. We reanalyze the data in Blasi et al. and demonstrate that the first 2 sources do not support their findings and Hockett’s hypothesis -- that languages of hunter-gatherers are less likely to develop labiodentals sounds. The negative association between labiodentals and hunter-gatherers instead appears to be an artifact of labiodental decline with increasing distance from Africa, which is a general trend of language phonemes.

    Read our detailed study at https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.20.957407v1

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Labiodental fricatives /f v/ are less present in languages having a small number of consonants
    • Frédéric Berthommier, CNRS Researcher, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble INP, GIPSA-lab, 38000 Grenoble, France
    • Other Contributors:
      • Louis-Jean Boë, Phonetician, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble INP, GIPSA-lab, 38000 Grenoble, France

    Abstract: We have found a significant relationship between the consonant inventory size and labiodentals /f v/. The geographical distribution of small inventory size languages overlaps with Hunter-Gatherers populations, leading to a possible confusion. The particular characteristics of Australia are detailed because symptomatic of this confusion.

    In Blasi et al. (Fig. S3, Research Article, 15 March 2019), it is shown that pseudo-BMA weights capture more than 90% in models including subsistence mode and having all non-labiodental segments as reference, « thus lending support to the notion that subsistence plays a role in accurately predicting labiodental counts ». We have found by another approach that the frequency of the two main labiodental segments /f v/ strongly depends on the count of all segments. The conditional probability of having phoneme /f/ or /v/ given the consonant inventory size, P(/x/|Size) was calculated from counts in UPSID451 (Figure 1A https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.8846216.v1). We have divided the set of 451 languages into 2 classes (Small/S and Average+Large/AL) from the 5 classes described in WALS (4), with a limit set at 19 consonants (S < 19; AL >= 19). S-class languages (n=164; average number=14.6) have a lower probability of having /f/ or /v/ compared to AL languages with a medium or large consonant inventory (n=287; average number=27) (P(/f/|S)=0.21; P(/f/|AL)=0.51;...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Labiodental fricatives /f v/ are less present in languages having a small number of consonants
    • Frédéric Berthommier, CNRS Researcher, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble INP, GIPSA-lab, 38000 Grenoble, France
    • Other Contributors:
      • Louis-Jean Boë, Phonetician, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble INP, GIPSA-lab, 38000 Grenoble, France

    Abstract: We have found a significant relationship between the consonant inventory size and labiodentals /f v/. The geographical distribution of small inventory size languages overlaps with Hunter-Gatherers populations, leading to a possible confusion. The particular characteristics of Australia are detailed because symptomatic of this confusion.

    In Blasi et al. (Fig. S3, Research Article, 15 March 2019), it is shown that pseudo-BMA weights capture more than 90% in models including subsistence mode and having all non-labiodental segments as reference, « thus lending support to the notion that subsistence plays a role in accurately predicting labiodental counts ». We have found by another approach that the frequency of the two main labiodental segments /f v/ strongly depends on the count of all segments. The conditional probability of having phoneme /f/ or /v/ given the consonant inventory size, P(/x/|Size) was calculated from counts in UPSID451. We have divided the set of 451 languages into 2 classes (Small/S and Average+Large/AL) from the 5 classes described in WALS (4), with a limit set at 19 consonants (S < 19; AL >= 19). S-class languages (n=164; average number=14.6) have a lower probability of having /f/ or /v/ compared to AL languages with a medium or large consonant inventory (n=287; average number=27) (P(/f/|S)=0.21; P(/f/|AL)=0.51; Percentage comparison test: p<0.001; P(/v/|S)=0.07; P(/v/|AL)=0.29; p<0.001). This suggests that consonant invento...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Labiodental mechanics

    Was it considered that without an overbite it would be easier to produce labiodentals using the lower teeth and upper lip instead?

    These results are certainly fascinating, but perhaps rather than the sounds not existing, they could also have been produced differently as well.

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • 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.

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