B07 Sound patterns in Human Language: phonation
1: Basic anatomy of the larynx
The larynx is a complex structure consisting of
several cartilages (that's gristle) arranged to form a big ring, and
two loose flaps, called the vocal folds which span the ring. At one
end of the each fold is a small pyramid-shaped cartilage called the
arytenoid cartilage. The other ends are pretty much
fixed and held together. The arytenoids can be moved from side to
side, or swiveled, so that they pull the vocal folds open or closed,
and optionally tighten them up. Pulling the folds together is called
adduction, while pulling them apart is
abduction. During breathing, airflow should be
unimpeded, so the folds are abducted. During voiced sounds, the folds
are adducted and air blows through them, causing them to vibrate (just
like a little Bronx cheer). You can see pictures of the folds during
voicing and during breathing by clicking below, though it may take a
moment to load.
The glottis is the vocal folds and the space between
them. It is thus the most important part of the larynx for speech
View photos of the glottis in action!
2: States of the glottis
A: Glottal closure
We met abduction (open, as during breathing) and
adduction (together, as during voicing). When the
folds are maximally adducted, no air can escape, and we have glottal
closure. Some sounds which involve complete glottal closure are
- Glottalic ejectives /p',t',k'/
- Glottal stop //
- Syllable final voiceless stops, especially /t/
Earlier in the course we pretended that voicing was like a switch.
Either a sound was voiced or it was not. Now it is time to attend to
detail. Regular voicing involves a close approximation of the vocal
folds, and regular vibration along their complete length (see the
photos). We can also whisper. Try singing in a
whisper. Can you sing a high note and a low note? The reason there
is no pitch is that the vocal folds are not vibrating. Rather, they
are slightly adducted, leaving enough of a constriction to cause some
frication. Whispering is like adding a /h/ sound to all
articulations. Although most languages have some form of /h/, I know
of none which use whispering as a distinctive form of phonation.
C: Murmur (breathy voice)
It is possible to combine a whisper with voicing. This is called
breathy voice or murmur. This is
achieved by bringing the vocal folds together along part of their
length (producing voicing) and spreading them for the rest (producing
the whisper). Sounds tough, but we do it automatically in the
oooohhhh! and aaahhhhhhh! conventionally used at
fireworks displays on the 4th of July. Produce an exaggerated
oooohhhh!, holding it for as long as you can. You notice that
you run out of air rather quickly. This is because much more air
flows through the slightly spread glottis than through a glottis in
its normal voicing state. Most speakers will produce a murmured sound
when /h/ occurs between two vowels, as in aha! or ahoy!.
Any sound which can be voiced, can be produced with murmur.
The IPA symbol is two dots underneath the non-murmured symbol.
Murmured vowels form minimal pairs with non-murmured ones in some
languages, such as Gujarati (India). (see Ladefoged, p. 141)
Just as an otherwise voiced sound can be produced with murmur, so an
otherwise whispered (/h/-like) sound can be produced with murmur.
This is used in some Indian languages, such as Hindi, to produce a
distinctive form of "aspiration" on voiced stops. This allows Hindi
to have a four-way "voicing" distinction (remember, English had a
2-way distinction, Thai had a 3-way distinction):
|| Breathy voiced
etc. see Ladefoged, p. 145 for glosses and further examples.
D: Creaky voice
In creaky voice, the vocal folds are especially tight, so that they
vibrate rather irregularly. Individual flaps are further apart than
in normal voicing and they are quite irregular. In extreme cases, you
can clearly hear individual taps of the folds. Try imitating a creaky
door. Creak is an idiosyncratic feature of some speakers voices, and
is often found at the end of an utterance. It is thus not distinctive
in English, but it is distinctive in Hausa (Nigeria), where the glide
/j/ is either creaky or not creaky (the term usually used is
laryngealized). Stops too can be distinctively
laryngealized, which means that the part of the vowel immediately
following stop release is creaky voiced (Hausa is again an
example). In the IPA, creaky or laryngealized sounds are marked by
putting a tilde (~) underneath them.
This page has been developed by Fred Cummins, Department of
Linguistics, 2016 Sheridan Road, to whom all questions should be
Copyright (1998) Northwestern University
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