Did post-neolithic changes in bite configuration impact speech? A new approach to the question


Blasi et al. (2019) offer evidence that post-neolithic changes in bite configuration, owed to the adoption of agriculture, have led to the innovation and proliferation of labiodental consonants in the world’s languages. Here we investigate the putative association between agriculture and labiodental consonants via a new approach that does not rely on phoneme inventories. Given that labiodentals are apparently characterized by reduced muscular effort in populations with agriculture-influenced bite configurations, we test whether labiodental sounds are actually more prevalent in languages whose speakers rely on agriculture. We rely on word lists from the Automated Similarity Judgement Program (Wichmann et al. 2018), which contains transcribed lists of common words in thousands of languages. We analyze the relative frequency of sound types in the word lists of agricultural and hunter-gatherer populations, respectively, finding differing mean rates of labiodental usage in populations with distinct subsistence strategies. Using a linear mixed-effects model to control for relatedness and contact, we find support for an association between the frequency of labiodental consonants and the use of agriculture

in Proceedings of the 13th International Conference of the Evolution of Language