The anatomical and physiological basis of human speech production: adaptations and exaptations

Ann MacLarnon

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 The anatomical and physiological basis of human speech production: adaptations and exaptations

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  • Linguistics
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Cognitive Linguistics


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This article provides details on human speech production involving a range of physical features, which may have evolved as specific adaptations for this purpose. All mammalian vocalizations are produced similarly, involving features that primarily evolved for respiration or ingestion. Sounds are produced using the flow of air inhaled through the nose or mouth, or expelled from the lungs. Unvoiced sounds are produced without the involvement of the vocal folds of the larynx. Mammalian vocalizations require coordination of the articulation of the supralaryngeal vocal tract with the flow of air, in or out. An extensive series of harmonics above a fundamental frequency, F0 for phonated sounds is produced by resonance. These series are filtered by the shape and size of the vocal tract, resulting in the retention of some parts of the series, and diminution or deletion of others, in the emitted vocalization. Human sound sequences are also much more rapid than those of non-human primates, except for very simple sequences such as repetitive trills or quavers. Human vocal tract articulation is much faster, and humans are able to produce multiple sounds on a single breath movement, inhalation or exhalation. The unique form of the tongue within the vocal tract in humans is considered to be a key factor in the speech-related flexibility of supralaryngeal vocal tract.

Keywords: mammalian vocalizations; human speech; harmonics; fundamental frequency; vocal tract; non-human primates

Article.  4823 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Phonetics and Phonology ; Cognitive Linguistics

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