Trippingly on the tongue.

Despite my age, I wonder how so very many things have escaped my notice so far -certain words, for example. I’m beginning to suspect that people keep making up new ones -at night while I’m asleep, maybe. My most recent discovery surfaced quite unexpectedly when my curiosity was aroused while reading an article on ‘F’ and ‘V’ sounds.

Who would have thought that these might be more difficult if most of us didn’t have an overbite (another word that has lived in the shadows since I got the braces off my teeth)?

And while there is a rather opaque word for difficulty in pronouncing ‘R’ (rhotacism) there doesn’t seem to be an analogous attempt to neologize the F and V family. A pity, that -it might have helped for the Smithsonian article:

‘The ability to make labiodental sounds—which are sounds that require you to put your lower lip on your upper teeth, such as and soundsmay not have fully developed until agriculture introduced softer foods to the human diet, changing our jaws,’ or so the University of Zurich linguist Balthasar Bickel hypothesized. ‘The study’s authors assert that such jaw structures were rarer in the Paleolithic Period, when hunter-gatherer’s rough diets demanded more force from teeth that met edge to edge. Agriculture softened our ancestors’ diets with processed gruels, stews and yogurts, and this fare led to gradually shrinking lower jaws to produce today’s overcrowded mouths.’ Overbites, in other words.

Of course, it is possible to squeeze out a V and the occasional F with no overbite, but as a quick check in the mirror to make sure I was doing it correctly showed, it is tiring. So, if I were a hunter gatherer with uncrowded teeth, I could see that after a long day on the trail dragging back a mammoth haunch to the missus, I might decide to use words that didn’t  require an F, or whatever.

Still there are naysayers who point out that ‘Despite today’s ubiquitous modern human dental orientations around the world, half of about 7,000 existing languages never started to regularly use labiodental sounds at all… Cooking has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, easing the stress on human teeth and jaws. Ancient Chinese agriculture produced easy-chewing rice, yet f and v sounds aren’t as common in Chinese as they are in Germanic or Romance languages.’

I have to say that I was disappointed with the holes in Bickel’s argument; I could have used it as an interesting topic to introduce should I ever be lucky enough to be invited to another dinner party. At the last one, I was introduced to rhotacism -I got it wrong, though.

My friends, Jamie and Jimmy (I know… they’re usually referred to as J & J) are quite eclectic in their choice of dinner guests, and that night was no different. Apart from J & J and me, there were 3 other quite talkative couples, and each of them seemed to have an area of expertise that they took turns pontificating about as if their dinner plates were each sedentary lecterns and their still uneaten food their notes.

“… that’s very interesting, uhmm… Margie…”said a slurred male voice from somewhere mid-table surfacing out of the foam of words around it. “…So at what age do you stop seeing the ahh… rhawtic disorder…?”

“Well,” she answered, pleased that at least one person had been listening to her description of the interesting patient she’d seen. “Most people lose it when they’re relatively young, but the older ones learn to disguise it… ” She had a quick sip of her wine. “You know, by talking slowly or using different words…” I immediately focussed my eyes on her lips when I saw her lift a small carrot dripping with dressing from the salad, and stuff it in her mouth with her fingers. My god, what had I got myself into?

An older man sitting across from her scratched his ear and asked her why she’d needed to see the patient in the first place. “If he could control it, I mean…?”

She smiled and wiped her lips with her napkin before answering. “He told me he was embarrassed by it -even after learning to disguise it in most situations, sometimes he would slip up and…”

“Not everybody understands,” the man sitting next to her explained as he gently stroked her neck -I assumed he was her partner because she offered him her last dripping carrot.

“I think I had that problem was I was much younger,” I volunteered, and all eyes turned to me.

“And how did you manage it?” the woman asked, her face serious again after this time wiping her partner’s lips with the same napkin.

“Oh, I imagine I hid it for a while -I mean, you learn how to hide stuff like that, eh?” I lifted what I discovered was an empty wine glass to my lips. “I don’t think my mother ever looked in the bottom of my sock drawer…” I shouldn’t drink at parties, because the table suddenly fell silent.

The woman actually blushed, and I could see annoyance written on her partner’s face. “I meant my patient had a ‘rhotic’ disorder,” she pronounced very slowly and carefully this time.

I must have looked puzzled -although I suspect it was more just flushed- because she glanced around the table with a wry grin on her face. Then, her face softened and her eyes twinkled at me as she explained. “He had great difficulty pronouncing his ‘R’s, but he spoke several other languages that hardly if ever used them, so it only became a problem when he moved to Canada…”

Both J & J thought it was hilarious, they told me later, at the door. They both thought Margie was sometimes a real priss… And maybe they just haven’t held any dinner parties since -I’d like to think that, anyway…


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