Tag Archives: vocal tract


Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML2012)

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year. This might be of interest to evolutionary linguists who use things like phylogenetic trees, networks, visual simulations or other fancy dancy visual methods. The following is taken from their website:

Linguistics, like other scientific disciplines, is centrally reliant upon visual images for the elicitation, analysis and presentation of data. It is difficult to imagine how linguistics could have developed, and how it could be done today, without visual representations such as syntactic trees, psychoperceptual models, vocal tract diagrams, dialect maps, or spectrograms. Complex multidimensional data can be condensed into forms that can be easily and immediately grasped in a way that would be considerably more taxing, even impossible, through textual means. Transforming our numerical results into graphical formats, according to Cleveland (1993: 1), ‘provides a front line of attack, revealing intricate structure in data that cannot be absorbed in any other way. We discover unimagined effects, and we challenge imagined ones.’ Or, as Keith Johnson succinctly puts it, ‘Nothing beats a picture’ (2008: 6).

So embedded are the ways we visualize linguistic data and linguistic phenomena in our research and teaching that it is easy to overlook the design and function of these graphical techniques. Yet the availability of powerful freeware and shareware packages which can produce easily customized publication-quality images means that we can create visual enhancements to our research output more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Crucially, it is very much easier now than at any time in the past to experiment with imaginative and innovative ideas in visual methods. The potential for the inclusion of enriched content (animations, films, colour illustrations, interactive figures, etc.) in the ever-increasing quantities of research literature, resource materials and new textbooks being published, especially online, is enormous. There is clearly a growing appetite among the academic community for the sharing of inventive graphical methods, to judge from the contributions made by researchers to the websites and blogs that have proliferated in recent years (e.g. InfostheticsInformation is BeautifulCool InfographicsBBC Dimensions, or Visual Complexity).

In spite of the ubiquity and indispensability of graphical methods in linguistics it does not appear that a conference dedicated to sharing techniques and best practices in this domain has taken place before. This is less surprising when one considers that relatively little has been published specifically on the subject (exceptions are  Stewart (1976), and publications by the LInfoVisgroup). We think it is important that researchers from a broad spectrum of linguistic disciplines spend time discussing how their work can be done more efficiently, and how it can achieve greater impact, using the profusion of flexible and intuitive graphical tools at their disposal. It is also instructive to view advances in visual methods for linguistics from a historical perspective, to gain a greater sense of how linguistics has benefited from borrowed methodologies, and how in some cases the discipline has been at the forefront of developments in visual techniques.

The abstract submission deadline is the 9th January.

Scientifically Pedantic Movie Reviews…


I’ve written a review of the new Planet of the Apes film (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, ARGH! OH GOD THE PLANET IS RISING etc.). It concentrates on the linguistic abilities of apes a bit, but I hope I haven’t made it too dull for the purposes of a movie review. There should be more scientifically/linguistically pedantic reviewing going on out there… get on it guys. It’s up on lablit.com now. Here’s a excerpt and link:

As someone who has dedicated quite a lot of time to reading about the linguistic abilities of apes, I didn’t enter the cinema to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” hoping for viable or realistic linguistic science. After all, we’ve all seen the original films and the apes talk just as humans do. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this would never happen in the real world, and this is not just because of the cognitive abilities of apes, but also because of the vocal tract of apes. That is to say that no matter how intelligent an ape is, it will not be possible for that ape to create the sounds of English as the physical ability simply isn’t there…

Read more at: lablit.com

Laryngeal Air Sacs

So, I got a request from a friend of mine to make an abstract on the fly for a poster for Friday. I stayed up until 3am and banged this out. Tonight, I hope to write the poster justifying it into being. A lot of the work here builds on Bart de Boer’s work, with which I am pretty familiar, but much of it also started with a wonderful series of posts over on Tetrapod Zoology. Rather than describe air sacs here, I’m just going to link to that – I highly suggest the series!

Here’s the abstract I wrote up, once you’ve read that article on air sacs in primates. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated – I’ll try to make a follow-up post with the information that I gather tonight and tomorrow morning on the poster, as well.

Re-dating the loss of laryngeal air sacs in hominins

Laryngeal air sacs are a product of convergent evolution in many different species of primates, cervids, bats, and other mammals. In the case of Homo sapiens, their presence has been lost. This has been argued to have happened before Homo heidelbergensis, due to a loss of the bulla in the hyoid bone from Austrolopithecus afarensis (Martinez, 2008), at a range of 500kya to 3.3mya. (de Boer, to appear). Justifications for the loss of laryngeal air sacs include infection, the ability to modify breathing patterns and reduce need for an anti-hyperventilating device (Hewitt et al, 2002), and the selection against air sacs as they are disadvantageous for subtle, timed, and distinct sounds (de Boer, to appear). Further, it has been suggested that the loss goes against the significant correlation of air sac retention to evolutionary growth in body mass (Hewitt et al., 2002).

I argue that the loss of air sacs may have occurred more recently (less than 600kya), as the loss of the bulla in the hyoid does not exclude the possibility of airs sacs, as in cervids, where laryngeal air sacs can herniate between two muscles (Frey et al., 2007).  Further, the weight measurements of living species as a justification for the loss of air sacs despite a gain in body mass I argue to be unfounded given archaeological evidence, which suggests that the laryngeal air sacs may have been lost only after size reduction in Homo sapiens from Homo heidelbergensis.

Finally, I suggest two further justifications for loss of the laryngeal air sacs in homo sapiens. First, the linguistic niche of hunting in the environment in which early hominin hunters have been posited to exist – the savannah – would have been better suited to higher frequency, directional calls as opposed to lower frequency, multidirectional calls. The loss of air sacs would have then been directly advantageous, as lower frequencies produced by air sac vocalisations over bare ground have been shown to favour multidirectional over targeted utterances (Frey and Gebler, 2003). Secondly, the reuse of air stored in air sacs could have possibly been disadvantageous toward sustained, regular heavy breathing, as would occur in a similar hunting environment.


Boer, B. de. (to appear). Air sacs and vocal fold vibration: Implications for evolution of speech.

Fitch, T. (2006). Production of Vocalizations in Mammals. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier.

Frey, R, & Gebler, A. (2003). The highly specialized vocal tract of the male Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa Pallas, 1777–Mammalia, Bovidae). Journal of anatomy, 203(5), 451-71. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1571182&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract.

Frey, Roland, Gebler, Alban, Fritsch, G., Nygrén, K., & Weissengruber, G. E. (2007). Nordic rattle: the hoarse vocalization and the inflatable laryngeal air sac of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Journal of Anatomy, 210(2), 131-159. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2006.00684.x.

Martínez, I., Arsuaga, J. L., Quam, R., Carretero, J. M., Gracia, a, & Rodríguez, L. (2008). Human hyoid bones from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of human evolution, 54(1), 118-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.07.006.

Hewitt, G., MacLarnon, A., & Jones, K. E. (2002). The functions of laryngeal air sacs in primates: a new hypothesis. Folia primatologica international journal of primatology, 73(2-3), 70-94. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12207055.

Sound good? I hope so! That’s all for now.

Phonology and Phonetics 101

What I’m going to try and do in this series of posts is follow my phonology module at Cardiff. As such, these posts are essentially my notes on the topic, and may not always come across too clearly. First, I thought it would be useful to give a quick definition of both phonology and phonetics, before moving on to discuss the anatomical organisation of our vocal organs.

Phonetics and Phonology

To begin, phonetics, often referred to as the science of speech sound, is concerned with the physical production, acoustic transmission and perception of human speech sounds (see: phone). One key element of phonetics is the use of transcription to provide a one-to-one mapping between phones and written symbols (something I’ll come back to in a later post). In contrast, phonology focuses on the systematic use of sound in language to encode meaning. So, whereas phonetics is specifically concerned with human speech sounds, phonology, despite having a grounding in phonetics, links in with other levels of language through abstract sound systems and gestures. SIL provides a useful little diagram showing where phonetics and phonology lie in relation to other linguistic disciplines:

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Why a lowered larynx is good for human speech production

Ok, there’s loads of theories as to why humans have a lowered larynx. I went to a talk about this in York probably about a year ago now and when I started reading about all this again it all came back and I thought I’d share Mark Jones‘ hypothesis with you all.

First, here’s a brief history of lowered larynx theories:

Whilst other primates have the ability to lower their larynx to make vocalisations it is only humans who have it permanently lowered. This means that humans when swallowing have to raise the larynx. This is thought to have not evolved in other species as it creates a significant risk of choking on food if the larynx is not raised on time. So if it’s so maladaptive how come it evolved in Humans?

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Some Links #14: Can Robots create their own language?

Can Robots create their own language? Sean already mentioned this in the comments for a previous post. But as I’m a big fan of Luc Steels‘ work this video may as well go on the front page:

Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the brain. The first of two really good articles in Scientific American. As you can guess by the title, this article is looking at current research into the links between music and language, such as the overlap in brain circuitry, how prosodic qualities of speech are vital in language development, and the way in which a person hears a set of musical notes may be affected by their native language. Sadly, the article is behind a paywall, so unless you have a subscription you’ll only get to read the first few paragraphs, plus the one I’m about to quote:

In a 2007 investigation neuroscientists Patrick Wong and Nina Kraus, along with their colleagues at Northwestern University, exposed English speakers to Mandarin speech sounds and measured the electrical responses in the auditory brain stem using electrodes placed on the scalp. The responses to Mandarin were stronger among participants who had received musical training — and the earlier they had begun training and the longer they had continued training, the stronger the activity in these brain areas.

Carried to extremes: How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species. In the second good article, which by the way is free to view, Ramachandran and Ramachandran propose another mechanism of evolution in regards to perception:

Our hypothesis involves the unintended consequences of aesthetic and perceptual laws that evolved to help creatures quickly identify what in their surroundings is useful (food and potential mates) and what constitutes a threat (environment dangers and predators). We believe that these laws indirectly drive many aspects of the evolution of animals’ shape, size and coloration.

It’s important to note that they are not arguing against natural selection; rather, they are simply offering an addition force that guides the evolution of a species. It’s quite interesting, even if I’m not completely convinced by their hypothesis — but my criticisms can wait until they publish an actual academic paper on the subject.

A robotic model of the human vocal tract? Talking Brains links to the Anthropomorphic Talking Robot developed at Waseda University. Apparently it can produce some vowels. Here is a picture of the device (which looks like some sort of battle drone):

Battle Drone or Model Vocal Tract?

Y Chromosome II: What is its structure? Be sure to check out the new contributor over at GNXP, Kele Cable, and her article on the structure of the Y Chromosome. I found this sentence particularly amusing:

As you can see in Figure 1, the Y chromosome (on the right) is puny and diminutive. It really is kind of pathetic once you look at it.

Scientopia. A cool collection of bloggers have banded together to form Scientopia. With plenty of articles having already appeared it all looks very promising. In truth, it’s probably not going to be as successful as ScienceBlogs, largely because it doesn’t pay contributors and, well, nothing is ever going to be as big as ScienceBlogs was at its peak. This new ecology of the science blogosphere is well articulated in a long post by Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock.