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What Produces Speech: Your Speech Anatomy

Part of the Phonetics For Dummies Cheat Sheet

A source-filter system produces human speech. Speech begins with a breathy source. The airflow beginning at the lungs causes sound to be produced through vibration and hissiness at the larynx (also referred to as your voicebox) in your throat. You then shape this sound through a filter, the passageways of the mouth and nasal cavity (nose). As you move your tongue around in your mouth to different areas, different tube-like vocal tract shapes are created. These shapes result in different sounds. Here are some important terms related to speech anatomy:

  • Alveolar ridge: A bony ridge at the roof of your mouth about a half-inch behind your upper teeth.

  • Glottis: The hole (or space) between the vocal folds in your throat.

  • Larynx: Also referred to as the Adam's apple, it's the voice box made of cartilage in your throat that holds your vocal folds.

  • Lips: Important for forming consonants such as in "pat," "bat," "mat," "fat," "vat," and "wet". They're protruded for some vowels.

  • Palate: Roof of the mouth, divided into hard palate (front) and soft palate (back).

  • Pharynx: A tube that connects the larynx to the oral cavity (mouth), located at the far back of your throat.

  • Teeth: Used to make dental sounds such as /θ/ in "teeth" and /ð/ in "those"

  • Tongue: The most important organ of speech production. A large muscle capable of amazing shape changes, used for speech and feeding.

  • Uvula: A dangling piece of tissue at the very end of the soft palate (the velum) that can act as a place of articulation for consonants in many languages

  • Velum: Another name for the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth that is not supported by bony cartilage.

  • Vocal folds: Also known as the vocal cords, they're two small flaps of muscle (about a half-inch long) in the larynx that vibrate and create speech.

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