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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

How do we form the sounds of speech?

The vast majority of speech sounds are produced by creating a stream of air which flows from the lungs through the mouth or nose. We use this stream of air to form specific sounds with our vocal folds and/or by changing the configuration of our mouths.

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When we produce consonants, a constriction is made somewhere in the mouth, either by stopping the air stream entirely (for example with our lips when saying 'p' or with our tongues when saying 't') or by leaving a very narrow gap which makes the air hiss as it passes (for example with our lips and teeth when saying 'f' or with our tongues when saying 's').

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We also use our vocal-folds to differentiate consonants. When we bring our vocal folds close together, the stream of air makes them vibrate, which sounds like a hum; when they are apart, they do not vibrate. You can feel this difference by putting your finger on your Adam's apple when you say 'ssss' and 'zzzz' - can you feel how 'zzzz' is voiced and 'ssss' is not voiced? When we produce vowels, we change the shape of our mouths by moving our tongues, lips and jaw.

The different shapes of the vocal tract act as different acoustic filters, altering the hum produced by the vocal cords in different ways. For example, we move our tongues right to the front of our mouths and make our lips wide to make an 'ie' sound, and we move our tongues to the back of our mouths and make our lips round to make an 'oe' sound. For an 'aaa' sound, we move our tongue to the bottom of our mouth, lower the jaw and open our lips wide.

Finally, there are other specific ways of creating speech sounds, such as moving the stream of air through the nose to create nasal sounds like 'm', or creating a small pressure vacuum with the tongue before releasing it with a sharp popping sound, which is how people produce click sounds in some African languages.

 Written by Matthias Sjerps, Matthias Franken & Gwilym Lockwood 

Further reading:

Ladefoged, P. (1996). Elements of acoustic phonetics (second ed.) (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos