Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.
How Does Speaking Work?
We don't think too much about the whole process of speaking, especially since most of us started speaking before we can even remember. However, it's 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.
Three Systems of 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:
- Respiratory - This is a system primarily responsible for breathing, but we can use the exhaled air for speech
- Phonatory - This is a system of throat valves and protective cartilage repurposed to create the sounds we recognize as the human voice.
- Articulatory - This is a system that 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
The 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.
Here are the parts that you should remember:
- The diaphragm
- The lungs
- The oral cavity
- The nasal cavity
- The trachea
The 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.
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, which is 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.
The laryngeal skeleton includes the following:
- Thyroid cartilage
- Cricoid cartilage
- 2 arytenoid cartilages
- 2 corniculate cartilages
- 2 cuneiform cartilages
The laryngeal muscles include the following:
- Lateral cricoarytenoid
- Oblique arytenoid
- Posterior cricoarytenoid
- Transverse arytenoid
The 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.
- Lips: Our complex lip muscles help us form a wide variety of consonant sounds. Try saying a few to see which ones use your lips the most.
- Teeth: Yes, we talk with our teeth. We make the sound of F or V when we combine our teeth and our lower lip, and the TH sound when we use our teeth and our tongues. Just ask a grandparent to take out their dentures and say ''further and forever.''
- Alveolar ridge: This is that thick ridge right behind your top row of teeth. You use this to produce the sounds of T, D, L, and others.
- Hard palate: This is the roof of your mouth, vital to your ability to say the Y sound in ''yes.''
- Soft palate: This sits behind the hard palate and is responsible for the hard K sound in ''kite'' and the hard G sound in ''gate.''
- Mandible: This is the proper term for your lower jaw. It constantly moves when you talk.
- Oral cavity: This is the empty space in your mouth. Moving different parts around will change the shape of the cavity, making different vowel sounds possible.
- Nasal cavity: Even your nose gets in on the fun, or at least the cavity between your throat and the nostrils. We buzz sound around in here when we make M or N sounds.
- Tongue: Finally, we come to the most important part, since the tongue is involved in every sound we make in the articulatory system. We've already seen a few examples, but the tongue works in combination with other parts to create consonant sounds, while it also shapes the oral cavity for vowels and directs air into the nasal cavities for other sounds.
All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned about the physiology of human language and speech. The physiological systems involved in speech include the respiratory system, which provides the air needed to speak, and when the air is expelled, it passes through the phonatory system, where the larynx helps to produce a voice, since it's the term for all of these tissues working together. We also find the epiglottis in the phonatory system, which is a leaf-shaped piece of cartilage that covers the opening of the larynx while swallowing in an effort prevent choking. Finally, we have the articulatory system that uses the mouth, tongue, lips, and more to make the specific consonant and vowel sounds we need for speech.
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