The Physiology of Human Language & Speech: Respiratory, Phonatory, & Articulatory Systems

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the physical systems involved in speech. Specifically, we'll look at the systems responsible for drawing in air, creating vocal sounds, and shaping vocal sounds into specific vowel and consonant sounds.

Speaking Is More Complicated Than You Might Think!

We don't often think too much about the whole process of speaking, especially since most of us started speaking before we can even remember. However, it is an extremely complicated and fascinating process that uses so many parts of our body that it's a wonder we can even speak at all. What's even more interesting is that most of these body parts perform other tasks critical to survival, while speech is just an added bonus. You might want to take notes since this lesson involves several long or unfamiliar words.

Speech seems so simple, yet it is surprisingly complex.

Three Systems Responsible for Speech

Lucky for us, the biological components of speech production were separated into different systems by researchers a long time ago. This makes it much easier to remember their location and names, but this division also helps us remember their functions. The systems we will look at are the following:

  1. Respiratory: This system is primarily responsible for breathing, but we can use the exhaled air for speech.
  2. Phonatory: This system of throat valves and protective cartilage is repurposed to create the sounds we recognize as the human voice.
  3. Articulatory: Finally, this system uses a variety of parts in and around the mouth to shape vocal sounds into the vowel and consonant sounds we use to make words.

Respiratory System

Let's start with the respiratory system because, let's face it, if you can't breathe, you can't speak. The entire process of breathing begins with the diaphragm, a muscular wall dividing the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Movement of the diaphragm expands the lungs, sucking in air through the nasal and oral cavities. The air travels through the trachea, or windpipe, to the lungs.

Respiratory system
respiratory system

Parts to Remember

  • Diaphragm
  • Lungs
  • Oral cavity
  • Nasal cavity
  • Trachea

Phonatory System

The second system of interest in speech production is the phonatory system, responsible for producing sound with the air that's pumping through the throat thanks to the respiratory system. This system includes the throat and the larynx, which is actually quite complicated. At the very top of the trachea, just below the mouth and nasal cavity, we have a strange assortment of moveable cartilage, muscles, tendons, tissues, and the hyoid bone. The cartilage is actually nine separate components called the laryngeal skeleton. These, when moved by the laryngeal muscles, regulate the tension in the larynx, which changes the sound produced.

Side view of larynx

The larynx is actually the term for all of these tissues working together. Until recently, some theorists claimed that speech only became possible when the larynx lowered in the human throat. Today, however, further research has proven that the larynx only significantly lowers in males while it remains higher in women and children.

The biggest change to allow speech is a change in the position of the epiglottis, a leaf-shaped piece of cartilage that covers the opening of the larynx while swallowing in an effort to prevent choking. In humans, this positional shift helps with speaking, but it reduces the effectiveness of choking prevention. So significant is the epiglottis to speech that infants and toddlers must wait for it to shift lower before talking begins, regardless if they understand language already.

Frontal view of larynx
anterior larynx

Laryngeal Skeleton

  • Epiglottis
  • Thyroid cartilage
  • Cricoid cartilage
  • 2 arytenoid cartilages
  • 2 corniculate cartilages
  • 2 cuneiform cartilages

Laryngeal Muscles

  • Vocalis
  • Thyroarytenoid
  • Thyroepiglottic
  • Cricothyroid
  • Lateral cricoarytenoid
  • Oblique arytenoid
  • Posterior cricoarytenoid
  • Transverse arytenoid
  • Aryepiglottic

Articulatory System

Now, let's look at the most complex parts of physically producing speech, the articulatory system. This includes all the parts above the larynx involved in the speech process, except the brain.

Some parts of the articulatory system

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