Speaking English causes bad teeth? Combined with chewing gum, leads to more kids having to wear dental braces? Help me research this one; would like stats and links...
May 11, 2009 2:11 AM   Subscribe

Speaking English causes bad teeth? Combined with chewing gum, leads to more kids having to wear dental braces? Help me research this one; would like stats and links...

(Just a theory) So many words in the English language require you to use your tongue to pronounce a word; most used being the word "the". During pronunciation of these words, your tongue hits the upper portion of your teeth. And I speculate that after thousands and thousands of times with your tongue hitting the upper row of teeth, it would push it out, causing malocclusion. Combine that with chewing bubble gum (blowing bubbles) and other bad habits (teeth grinding), many kids end up having to wear dental braces.

Also, I believe that most Asian languages have shorter characters, pronunciations, and come in short bursts which requires less of the tongue hitting your teeth. Hence Asian people having trouble learning English; skipping all the tail sounds, trying to speak English Asian-burst-style-really-fast. Russell Peters said it best: "When Chinese people speak English, they sound like they are chopping vegetables."

That said, how can I find stats for something like: percentage of population under 18 who wear dental braces, London (English speaking) vs. Beijing (Mandarin speaking)? Or the same stat but for London vs. Singapore (because of their chewing gum ban)?

Again, it's just a theory. Wikipedia doesn't have much on the cause of malocclusion, so anybody familiar with this dental stuff, your opinions, links, and other theories are welcome.
posted by querty to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This seems like a pretty crazy theory.

But if you're out to find evidence for or against it, you'll need to compare Mandarin and English speakers of the same ethnicity. For all you know the English could be genetically cursed with bad teeth, and it would skew your data if they were.

Also, you can't use 'wearing braces' as a measure of having bad teeth. Wearing braces is a measure of whether you or your parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars to improve your teeth, whether they're catastrophically wonky or merely a little odd. Many people with awful teeth will go without treatment, and there's no shortage of rich kids who wear braces to correct minor quirks.

Good luck with your theory, though.
posted by embrangled at 2:27 AM on May 11, 2009

You're going to find it incredibly hard to isolate your contributory factors in this research. Factors which are going to affect the figures will likely include:
(a) Availability of cosmetic dental care in the two groups
(b) Cultural factors, such as the desirability of perfect straight teeth, and attitudes to breastfeeding.
(c) Physiological factors that differ betwen the two groups
(d) Wealth variations within groups - you'll need a carefully selected sample for somewhere like London, which has (compared with the rest of the UK) significant extremes of wealth.
(e) Differing practices within the dental professions of the two cultures.
(f) Diet.

Yes, it seems like a pretty crazy theory. All in all I would expect that language probably plays a trivial part in this compared with other factors.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:23 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you think such extremely small forces can have orthodontic effects, an easier way to test the hypothesis would be to measure the angle (relative to vertical) of the teeth of people who sleep on their side vs on their backs/fronts.

Out of curiosity, how would you explain why orthodontic correction requires years of painfully uncomfortable force applied round the clock when only a few seconds' worth of gentle tapping is all that's required to put them out of place?
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:34 AM on May 11, 2009

1. I'm pretty sure the tongue would give way long before the teeth. And my tongue is fine despite spending ten minutes saying "the" just now.

2. Eating firm food (such as carrots) puts far more pressure on the teeth than the gentle touch of the tongue while saying "the".

3. I knew lots of kids with braces growing up, and malocclusion was not the determining factor. Median income was.

I know you were hoping to use this as your dissertation topic for your post-grad work on your dual linguistics/dentistry major, but I think you're going to have trouble finding any useful data.
posted by mmoncur at 4:04 AM on May 11, 2009

There are probably existing studies that determine whether chewing gum affects the movement of your teeth. That's something I would ask a dentist about.

As for the language aspect: the sounds that require you to push the tongue against the back of your top teeth are called "dental fricatives" and they don't exist in French, Russian, German, and many other languages as well. So you don't need to restrict your comparisons to Asian countries; you could simply compare London to Paris, for example.

However, I think it would be extremely difficult to conduct the kind of study you're talking about because of all the other differences (ethnic/genetic, cultural, economic, etc) as others have mentioned. It seems to me that all the other factors related to shaping dental growth would make the language factor insignificant.
posted by helios at 5:10 AM on May 11, 2009

Generally-available data is unlikely to confirm or refute your theory. But if you wanted to conduct a study, I'd go with an immigrant population that's right on the cusp of speaking English to their kids at home. But of course you can't use whether the kids have braces or not as the dependent variable, since that's dependent on a lot of cultural factors, too, and parental choice, income, etc. So you'd need each kid in the study to get evaluated by the dentist, and see if there's a correlation with English being spoken in the home.
posted by goingonit at 5:12 AM on May 11, 2009

1. You don't have a theory, you have a hypothesis. Theories, by definition, must have been repeatedly tested and widely accepted.

2. Whatever infinitesimally small forces on your teeth that making a few of these sounds cause are going to be totally dwarfed by physiological differences between speakers of English and Asian languages. How would you control for these differences? I doubt it's possible given available data -- you'd have to engineer a whole study yourself.
posted by Fuzzy Dunlop at 5:23 AM on May 11, 2009

The massive discrepancy in brace-wearing between the UK and the US suggests to me that language is not a major factor, compared to culture, for example.
posted by Bodd at 5:25 AM on May 11, 2009

You know, my own orthodontist had a theory that my own teeth were bad because of a similar pressing-the-tongue-against-my-teeth theory.

However, this was about a month before the man later had a breakdown because he was sincerely, certifiably insane.

I have no incontrovertible proof that the two are in any way related. But I do have my doubts about the tongue-press-messes-up-teeth theory as a result.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:44 AM on May 11, 2009

If your theory holds true then it seems like any language that rolls R's like Spanish or Russian would be much worse than English on the teeth. I think your theory would be almost impossible to prove. Dental braces are worn more for aesthetic reasons than anything and dental problems have many, many more sources than chewing gum and talking.
posted by JJ86 at 6:05 AM on May 11, 2009

In making your comparison, you would need to assume that the diagnostic practices were the same (which they almost certainly are not, given the cosmetic component) and that the means of paying for therapy were equivalent. No way you can do this.

Slightly easier to test: the hypothesis that Italian gesticulation leads to higher rates of arthritis.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:07 AM on May 11, 2009

I've heard it argued that people of mixed ancestry tend to have more "teeth not matching their jaw" issues that people whose ancestors all can from the same 100 miles in diameter circle for the past however many generations. If you went some place in China and collected data and then some US or UK city and did the same, how would you control for this?

That's the kind of questions your going to have to answer if you want to find real supporting data for this. Otherwise you're going to have a mountain of confounding variables to deal with.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:10 AM on May 11, 2009

You're probably looking for information about something called a tongue thrust. My teeth are very gappy because when I swallow my tongue pushes against the back of my front teeth and I never had braces. From what I understand, I'll actually have to get occupational therapy to re-learn how to swallow when I do eventually shell out for braces so I don't undo all the work. But I don't think it has anything to do with language and everything to do with the way my mouth and tongue are shaped.
posted by sugarfish at 6:19 AM on May 11, 2009

Kid Charlemagne, thanks. New hypothesis: Italians exhibit lower rates of hand-specific arthritis; higher rates of what we will call auto-defenestration.

As to tongues and teeth, remember that you have to account for the possibility that English-speaking people have evolved toward shorter tongues and discrepantly longer upper jaws. Admire Keira Knightley now, if you must, for we will not see her like again.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:40 AM on May 11, 2009

querty: more kids having to wear dental braces

Well, let's talk about this phrase "having to wear". Where do you draw the line between "legitimate need" and "vanity/social norms"? There's a large socio-economic factor in deciding who "needs" braces.
posted by mkultra at 7:25 AM on May 11, 2009

I have heard of children who push their tongue against their front teeth instead of letting it rest against the roof of the mouth, like sugarfish describes, and that can cause the teeth to move forward, but it's not related to speech.

To test your hypothesis, you would need to control for genetics, language learned, etc. For a quick and dirty shortcut, you might want to interview some orthodontists and learn about the most common bite problems they see. Maybe front teeth being pushed out by the tongue is fairly common, I don't know.

I've read that thumb-sucking and pacifier use can contribute to malocclusion, and I'd imagine that would result in an overbite or the front teeth being pushed. So that would need to be controlled for as well.

(Anecdotes are not data, but the day I was born, the doctor who delivered me said, "That kid's gonna need braces." Before I'd made a peep in any language or cut my first tooth, I already had a crazy overbite as a result of genetics.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:12 AM on May 11, 2009

Hmm. I've been told that part of my dental problems were due to sucking my thumb, so there was a constant obstacle for my front teeth to emerge against. But this was a relatively small change, from a large digit that was almost always present, rather than the 'strokes' of a tongue.

The other thing that no-one else has mentioned is that your hypothesis isn't about 'braces' or wonky teeth in general, merely the front teeth that the tongue intersects with on those sounds. I had significant problems with my back teeth; it's highly unlikely that my molars coming out at 90 degrees to where they should be had anything to do with fricatives.

And braces aren't always cosmetic, people! I had mine free on the NHS because of the disaster area that was my mouth. They're still not like those terrifying tombstone teeth that Americans seem to favour (thank goodness), but they are relatively straight and functional.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:25 AM on May 11, 2009

According to my dentist, Kid Charlemagne is right on. I had asked him why wisdom teeth needed to be extracted so often. Was it evolution in action? Coincidentally, his undergraduate degree was in physical anthropology, and it turns out the explanation is very simple. In homogeneous populations, tooth size and jaw size evolve into correspondence. Large jaws go along with large teeth, and visa-versa. But if you put big teeth in a small jaw, you're going to run into trouble.

England has had quite a mixed history [Pre-Celts, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Norman French, world immigration], especially in cities such as London that gained population from all over the British Isles as well as the world. By the late 17th century, London had 1/6th of the English population. And this same mixing was carried on to a greater degree in its colonies.

So it isn't the language, but the mixed genetic heritage of its speakers that produces the phenomenon.

It doesn't take much mixing to cause teeth problems: I come from one of the notably inbred gene pools. I was lucky enough to end up with a large enough jaw to accommodate my larger teeth, and never needed braces [I did have impacted wisdom teeth, though]. My brother ended up with a narrower jaw and smaller teeth and didn't need braces. My sister, though, was stuck with a smaller jaw (probably just because she was femail) and larger teeth, so she had to have teeth pulled and wear braces.
posted by Araucaria at 11:26 AM on May 11, 2009

s/femail/female/. What is it with my brain today?
posted by Araucaria at 11:27 AM on May 11, 2009

I was also told my once massive overbite was at least partially due to thumbsucking.

I also know someone who claimed they cured their own overbite by pressing back on their teeth with their fingers whenever they sat down to watch TV, aka manual braces.
posted by nomisxid at 11:27 AM on May 11, 2009

I'm going to go back to the OP and make this comment: while the wikipedia article may not have the information you require to prove or disprove your quaint hypothesis, anyone who has gone through the rigors of a dental school education could.
this is why medicine/dentistry is not practiced by consultation with internet sources. this is why folks with advanced degrees have advanced degrees, they go to school and study a discipline, rather than taking a handful of anecdotes and some empirical observations and whipping up a wild guess.
Help you research this one? get an undergrad degree, go to dental school for four years, get into a post-doc ortho program and publish. good luck.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:46 PM on May 11, 2009

Kind of a harsh answer OHenry, the OP is just trying to make connections. But yes, I agree, a little bit of constructive thinking and we can find that the likelihood of the connection - much less proving the connection - is zilch.
posted by Think_Long at 3:32 PM on May 11, 2009

Yes, think, you are correct, i was in a bad mood when i posted, and present a general apology for the tone. nonetheless, the connection is, for a myriad of reasons, unattainable.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:03 PM on May 11, 2009

I guess the first thing I can say is that your idea is very creative. Unfortunately, it is definitely wrong. Probably the first thing you should do is get a book on phonetics.

What you will see is that English is not unique in its places of articulation, particularly the sounds made near the teeth. In fact, other languages have much stronger sounds than the fricative in "the" (which is made by having a small space between the tongue and teeth which causes frication). For example, while English "t" is made by pressing the tongue to the alveolar ridge Spanish "t" is made by actually pressing against the teeth, which makes a full closure (these sounds are even called "plosives"!). Italian goes even further with having "t", "s", "n", "r", "l", and others pronounced by pressing against the teeth.

Furthermore, many languages have the same sound that you consider dangerous for English speakers' teeth:

Here is a list of languages that have the same "th" as "this".
Here is a list of languages that have the same "th" as "think".

There are a lot of them! I seriously doubt you will find above-average braces use in most of these places.
posted by kosmonaut at 7:53 PM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: @OHenryPacey - not harsh at all, thanks for the reality sandwich; it was tasty.

I thought about this all day, nobody had mentioned to look for and study people who don't speak at all and communicate with sign language only. Then this would throw my hypothesis out and point towards the suggested "mixed ancestry" and "eating habits".
posted by querty at 10:16 PM on May 11, 2009

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