[European] humans had an ape-like bite until relatively recently, with our top and bottom incisors aligned along their edges. With the invention of the fork around 250 years ago, our teeth abruptly switched to the overbite that is common to nearly every human today. ... This same trend appeared 900 years earlier in China, when chopsticks first came into use.

So what I'm wondering is, has anyone tried to look for any evidence of sound-change patterns that may have accompanied these slight shifts of the resting position of the jaw?

  • If this is a real phenomenon (which seems not to be clearly established), one could also look at modern populations with and without an overbite and see if there are any regular differences in phoneme inventories. Seems pretty doubtful, but who knows.
    – TKR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 15:56
  • 1
    @TKR Yeah I know it's not clearly established. Just curious if someone might have already had the idea occur to them already (that it might have had a reconstructable effect on phonological trends if it did happen), and already looked into it.
    – Owen_AR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 16:58
  • @TKR But looking for regular differences in phoneme inventories between modern populations with and without overbites isn't the same thing...
    – Owen_AR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 17:02
  • And I was kinda imagining the most effect it could have had would be not to drive phonemic change directly, but to change the subtle "accent" (stuff that's hard to capture even in a narrow phonetic IPA transcription, but which we can still pick out as "talking a bit like you're holding a mint on your tongue" or something...) which could have indirectly pushed for a higher rate of phonemic drift, which we might be able to detect... some...how? Yeah, it's a vaguely plausible scenario, but detecting it historically at all, let alone controlling for third factors... major longshot.
    – Owen_AR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 17:15
  • looking for regular differences in phoneme inventories between modern populations with and without overbites isn't the same thing: It basically is the same thing, since if this difference (assuming it exists) could cause certain types of sound change, that would be because it favored certain types of articulation, and that would be reflected synchronically in phoneme inventories as well as diachronically.
    – TKR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 21:00

1 Answer 1


I see from your link that this story was launched by a food writer. Is there any archaeological evidence for this supposed sudden change in human physiology? It doesn't really fit in with evolutionary theory, does it?

By the way the fork was not invented "around 250 years ago". Table forks have been in common use in the Near East and (somewhat later) in Europe for at least 1000 years.

  • It's not supposed to be a genetic change, but one caused by cultural habits. That said, of course I agree that evidence is needed (the linked article is noncommittal about the truth of the claim).
    – TKR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 15:53
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    @TKR The problem is that for there to be significant (or even just noticeable) changes in organisms, 1000 years are nothing as far as evolutionary times are concerned. Like really nothing.
    – Alenanno
    Mar 19, 2014 at 16:12
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    In her interview, Bee Wilson says explicitly "This change is far too recent for any evolutionary explanation. Rather, it seems to be a question of usage. An American anthropologist, C. Loring Brace, put forward the thesis that the overbite results from the way we use cutlery, from childhood onwards."
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 19, 2014 at 16:52
  • So what is the data for "this change"? How extensive is it and how was the survey conducted? If there's no data there's no "this change", however it may be hypothesized to have happened.
    – jlawler
    Mar 19, 2014 at 17:28
  • @Alenanno The point is that if this change really happened, which of course remains to be shown, it would have nothing to do with evolution or genetics, but with different habits of behavior dependent on culture.
    – TKR
    Mar 19, 2014 at 21:01

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