Teeth and tongues make the sounds of our speech, but our humanity makes its meanings
Babies have an astonishing talent that adults entirely lose. By the age of one, they can recognise the significant noises in the babble around them and group them into a language. When we have lost this capacity as adults, it becomes enormously difficult to distinguish between sounds that are glaringly different to a native speaker. It all sounds Greek to us, or, as the Greeks would have it, barbarous. This is because the range of possible sounds that humans use to convey meaning may be as high as 2,000, but few languages use more than 100 and even then the significant noises – the phonemes of a language – each cover a range of sounds and so blur distinctions which would change the meaning of a word in other languages.
But where do these phonemes come from and why do they shift over time? New research suggests that the apparently arbitrary distribution of some sounds around the world may be partially explained by diet. This is unexpected. We’d rather think of language as the product of our thought, rather than of the arrangement of our teeth. In reality, though, any given language must be both.