Remember learning about Rube Goldberg machines? These machines employ a series of mechanical processes that eventually result in an action. Speech production is similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. After the brain figures out what we want to say (which is accomplished through electrical and chemical means), the rest of speech production is surprisingly mechanical.
Maybe you’ve used a bellows to blow some life into a fire. You might have noticed the sound of the air rushing out of the bellows and how it changed depending on how quickly you moved the handles together. Or maybe you have created a squealing sound by stretching the opening of an inflated balloon and allowing the air to escape through the tight but unblocked opening. With a little bit of force and in close quarters, moving air can produce sound.
In speech production, the moving air comes from the lungs. We use muscles, including the diaphragm, to get the air moving. It travels up out of the lungs and into the throat, where it meets the larynx.
The Whoopee Cushion
Whoopee cushions are immensely entertaining. That is not just because of the ease with which you can trick someone into thinking they have farted, but rather, because the whoopee cushion creates its comical sound via air flowing through a flappy opening. The vocal chords (a.k.a. vocal folds), are like the flappy opening of a whoopee cushion. Just as you can shift the opening of a balloon or whoopee cushion to alter the pitch of the sound that is created by the escaping air, we adjust our larynx to change the pitch and quality of our voice. These adjustments are made using muscles that move cartilaginous structures attached to our vocal folds.
Voice is produced as it travels through the opening in the vocal folds on its journey from the lungs. The vocal folds are made of muscle with a flexible, stretchy, flappy cover, like the rubber of a whoopee cushion. The sound that comes out of the opening in your vocal folds is your voice.
Have you ever blown air across the top of a bottle to make a sound? You can change the sound a little by shifting your lips, but the nature of the sound that you can make with a bottle depends the most on the volume of air inside the bottle. The more liquid there is (in other words, less air), the higher-pitched the sound will be. An empty bottle makes a low-pitched sound.
Air resonates in a bottle like the voice resonates in the air-filled chambers of the head and neck (a.k.a. the vocal tract). The sound waves of a speaker’s voice explode out of the vocal folds and bounce around at the back of the throat, in the mouth, and up into the nose. The speaker can greatly affect the quality of the sound of their voice using the muscles of the throat and mouth to position their larynx and the surfaces of the vocal tract.
Over the years, people have created duck calls, a type of whistle designed to – like a duck’s own vocal tract – cut through the noise of water to attract ducks. There are a number of duck calls out there, with each design offering a different ducky sound. Key features of duck call designs are the use of vibrating reeds to create the sound when someone blows into the whistle, and the blockages through which the sound waves travel before leaving the whistle. The structure of these duck calls can vary greatly, with different whistles producing very different sounds.
Spoken language is a series of sounds that we create using the air we move from our lungs out our mouth (and nose). What makes it so complex is our ability to produce – and understand – a lengthy series of these sounds at high speed. We produce the sounds of speech with our lips, tongue, and the flap of tissue that separates the air in the mouth from the air in the nose.
Different sounds are produced by changing the airflow in the vocal tract in different ways. Speakers can do this by forcing the air through a smaller space (like when a pirate bunches up their tongue to say, “arrrr”), and by blocking the air (like when a diner forces the air out through the nose to say, “mmm” or a thirsty baby moves their lips together and apart to say, “baba”).
Putting it Together: Whoopee Cushion to Duck Call
Around the globe, there are over 100 different speech sounds, and all are created out of thin air. When we speak, we move air from our lungs through our vocal folds, and we manipulate it for each sound. Speakers combine speech sounds in infinite ways to communicate. A listener’s ability to process a series of speech sounds quickly depends on their knowledge of the language spoken and their experience using that language, as well as the speaker’s precision of production. Just as one small change in the design of a duck call can change the sound it produces, a small change in the position of the larynx or tongue can significantly change the sound a speaker produces.
When you know the words you want to say but you feel that your speech production could be more precise, that’s where speech trainers come in. At Lingua East we can help you turn the air in your lungs into speech that people understand. Drop us a line and we’ll help you out. Go on, let them hear your ideas!
 While most (such as the sounds in Standard American English) are created using air from the lungs, some speech sounds, such as the various clicks in African languages, are created by drawing air in.