The sounds "f" and "v" are a normal part of our language, we learn them as small children and use them without thinking about it. However, this was not always the case. In fact, the sounds came about relatively recently—at least when you put it in the context of all of human history. And diet played a crucial role in that.
A team of researchers found that the human jaw also changed as a result of new eating habits. For a long time, people primarily ate foods that put a lot of strain on their teeth – meat or nuts, for example. In the Neolithic Age (from about 9500 BC), however, agriculture developed with the Neolithic Revolution. This also changed the menu.
What nature gave them, the people of that time could now process much better, the dishes had a softer consistency and were easier to chew. The jaws, which are now significantly less in demand, changed and became smaller. Prehistoric people had 44 teeth instead of 32 today (including wisdom teeth). While the upper and lower incisors of the hunters and gatherers were exactly on top of each other - the so-called head bite - people developed an overbite at this time, in which the upper incisors are slightly above the lower ones and closer to the lower lip.
This made it easier to pronounce an F because it's what's called a labiodental sound. With this type of sound, the lower lip touches the upper front teeth. This is much easier for people who have an overbite, they only need two-thirds of the muscle strength to do it. "In Europe, over the last two millennia, we find a dramatic increase in labiodentals, driven by the spread of processed, softer foods and further fueled by the introduction of industrial milling processes," explained Steven Moran, one of the scientists who in 2019 linked the Diet and pronunciation studied.
The researchers drew on findings from biological anthropology, phonetics and historical linguistics. Connections between changing eating habits – for example the introduction of a kind of rusk in ancient Rome or new processing methods – and language were repeatedly found. However, this was not always the case. Apparently, some speech communities were particularly conservative and refused to change their pronunciation.
The change in the jaw made it possible to pronounce words like "bicycle" or "father" - but it didn't just have advantages. The smaller jaws also brought us wisdom teeth that did not erupt, crowded teeth and tooth decay.