Close-up photo of a bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit preserves.

Enlarge / Soft grains, dairy, and preserved food may have changed our mouths—and ultimately our languages. (credit: David Lifson / Flickr)

Something deep in the history of the German language pulled speech sounds toward hisses rather than pops. Words like that and ship end with a small popping sound in English, Dutch, and other Germanic languages—but in German, they end in softer s and f sounds—dass, Schiff. Centuries ago, before German was even German, this change was already underway, an example of one of the many small shifts that ends up separating a language from its close cousins and sending it off as its own distinct tongue.

How does change like this happen? One of the major reasons is speech efficiency. Speakers are constantly walking a tightrope between being understood and making speech as easy as possible—over time, this tension pulls languages in new directions. But if efficiency pushed German speakers in this direction, why not Dutch speakers, too? That is, if two languages share a given feature, why does that feature sometimes change in one language but not the other?

A paper published in Science today lays out an intriguing answer: technology might …read more

Source:: Ars Technica

      

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