How Speech Sounds Are Formed

Try to decide what you do that is different from normal speech and interferes with it. --- (Renée Byrne, Let’s talk about stammering)

Knowledge of speech sounds and how they are formed should be of great benefit to the PWS who wants to improve his speech. Too often the PWS is a victim of the disorder as well as of his ignorance of it. He sees himself as a helpless puppet, controlled by something more powerful than himself.

Better knowledge of stuttering will show him that stuttering is not something that HAPPENS to him – it’s something he DOES. This deprives the disorder of much of its mystique. His emotional distress will be replaced by an awareness that his speech organs are incorrectly positioned and move excessively. With this awareness he has taken a step on the path to better control. Knowledge of speech sounds will also enable him to use a speech technique such as the Passive Airflow Technique more adequately.

Keep in mind that it’s not always easy to identify the sound on which stuttering occurs. A PWS who uncontrollably prolongs the s-sound in the word ‘sale’ may think that he has problems with the s-sound, while the block actually occurs with the a-sound. Since he is unable to say the a-sound, he repeats the s-sound.

Sound formation

When a person breathes without speaking, air is inhaled through the nose and/or mouth to the lungs and then exhaled. When a person speaks, the air moves from the lungs through the vocal slit between the vocal cords. The vocal cord muscles contract and the vocal slit narrows. Variations in air pressure cause the vocal cords to vibrate, producing sound waves which we hear as sound. Additional changes in the nature of the sound are produced by the position of speech organs such as the tongue and lips.

The process described above occurs during the pronunciation of the so-called VOICED sounds. A sound is voiced if the vocal cords vibrate during sound formation. Vowels such as ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘o’, ‘u’ and ‘e’ are voiced and formed by the tongue, lips, etc in different positions. Some consonants, eg ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘l’, m’, ‘n’, and ‘z’ are also voiced.

It’s easy to establish if a sound is voiced. Place your fingertips against your Adam’s apple (the external part of the larynx). If the sound is voiced, you will feel a slight vibration as you pronounce it.

VOICELESS sounds are shaped WITHOUT vocal cord vibration. Only the position of the tongue and lips play a role, eg ‘p’, ‘t’, ‘k’, ‘f’ and ‘s’.

The voiced b-sound

When the b-sound is pronounced, the air passage is blocked by the LIPS, which increases air pressure behind the lips. By opening the lips, the air is released and at the same time the vocal cords come closer together and vibrate. The sudden release of ‘sound-waved’ air from the lips produces a small ‘explosion’ of air which is heard as the voiced b-sound.

The voiced d-sound

The tip of the tongue moves to a position just behind the upper front teeth, so that the TONGUE blocks the air passage, causing air pressure to build up behind it. The vocal cords come closer together and vibrate, and at the same time a quick lowering of the tongue releases the blocked, sound-waved air. As in the case of the b-sound, this release of pressurised air produces an explosion-like effect which is heard as the voiced d-sound.

The voiced g-sound

Pronunciation of the g-sound as in ‘grain’ involves pressing the back part of the tongue against the SOFT PALATE. The air passage is blocked, the tongue moves away and releases the blocked air, and at the same time the vocal cords come closer together and vibrate, creating the characteristic voiced g-sound.

The unvoiced p-, t- and k-sounds

The b, d and g-sounds as mentioned above are voiced. Their unvoiced opposite numbers are the p, t and k-sounds. These three sounds are pronounced like the b, d and g-sounds respectively, but without vocal cord vibration.

The voiced m- and n-sounds

When pronouncing the m and n-sounds, the vocal cords come closer together and vibrate, and the waved air is allowed to escape through the NOSE. In the case of the m, the lips remain closed; with the n the lips are open but the air is obstructed by the teeth as well as the tongue.

The voiced l-sound

The l-sound (as in ‘lion’) is shaped by letting the vocal cords come closer together so that they vibrate, and at the same time the tongue is placed against the palate without blocking the air passage completely – the waved air moves past the sides of the tongue.

The unvoiced f and the voiced v-sounds

With the f- (as in ‘funny’) and v-sound (as in ‘very’) the speech tract is narrowed so that the exhaled, pressurised air escaping from the lips produces audible sound. Note that in the case of the f, the vocal cords remain wide open and do not vibrate. In the case of the v-sound, however, the vocal cords do come closer together and vibrate, producing waved, voiced air.

The voiced y-sound

The y as in ‘young’ is produced by contracting and vibrating the vocal cords and lifting the entire body of the tongue towards the front of the hard palate, with the tip of the tongue pointing downwards so that it presses against the lower teeth. The edges of the surface of the tongue press against the upper molars and the sides of the palate so that the air current passes across the entire width of the tongue with an audible sound, almost like the sh-sound in ‘shine’.

The voiced h-sound

When the h-sound is said, for example in ‘heavy’, the vocal cords are drawn together closely and vibrate, and the waved air is forcefully pushed through.

The voiced r-sound

The r-sound is made by springy up-and-down movements of the tongue which obstruct the outgoing air, producing a trilling sound. The trilling of the tongue against the teeth, gums or palate causes a series of tiny ‘explosions’ of air that are heard as sound. At the same time the vocal cords contract and vibrate. This is a rather sophisticated and difficult sound to produce.

The different positions assumed by the speech organs for each sound transform the oral cavity in a variety of ways, adding to each sound’s characteristic nature and resonance. During ordinary speech the succession of different sounds occurs at high speed. For more details on sound formation, consult an introductory linguistics or phonetics textbook.

Experiment with this information. Look at yourself in a mirror as you pronounce the different sounds; use your fingers to feel the movement of your tongue and lips as you say the different sounds. Press your fingers against your Adam’s apple and say a few voiced sounds. Do you feel the slight vibration against your fingertips?

Establish what you do wrong when you stutter

With this additional information on sound formation, you will be able to view your stuttering behaviour in a different perspective. You should now study your stuttering by looking at yourself in a mirror and / or recording yourself.

Try to establish what it is that you do wrong. Compare your stuttering behaviour with the normal pronunciation of sounds (as described in the preceding paragraphs). You will notice that during stuttering you do far more than is required to pronounce that specific sound. Those excessive movements also generate a lot of additional tension and energy, so increasing the tension on the vocal cords. Try to eliminate those excessive movements. Return to the chapter ‘The Passive Airflow Technique’ and re-read the section on Low Energy Speech.

Don't pre-form!

If you try to use the Passive Airflow Technique, you will soon discover that pre-forming (see the chapter ‘Learning the Technique’) is a major problem. For instance, a person with the surname Morris may pre-form the m-sound before saying his surname. Instead of allowing the airflow preceding the word to be effective by keeping his lips in a slightly open, neutral and relaxed position, he presses his lips together tightly in anticipation of the m-sound. No wonder he has a problem with his surname! It is easier to prevent pre-forming if you know something about speech sound formation.

This applies to all your problem sounds. For instance, if you find the l-sound (as in ‘lion’) difficult, try to establish what you do when you stutter on it. Is your tongue in a relaxed, neutral position, allowing the air to flow before you say the sound, or is your tongue already moving up towards your palate before you start to speak? If the latter applies, you are pre-forming the sound and may stutter on it when you say it.

The aim of this chapter was to increase your awareness of speech sound formation. This knowledge and awareness should make fluency techniques, such as the Passive Airflow Technique, easier to use and your speech easier to control.



Anonymous said...

Hey Peter. I really like your blogs, and what I read of your book (And I also WRITE A LOT. Only way that I can communicate. Comedy, stand up and poetry mainly. We should compare notes.). Currently, I pretty much have nothing due to my speech problems, and I pray to die every day, but of course, God, if their is a God (And if he wasn't sitting on the heavenly crapper or reading Playboys while horrible shit happens on a daily basis.) However, I think that you neglect the fact that stutterers also have NEUROLOGICAL problems (It's even classified as a neurological disorder.), and that's what some therapies (Like Barbara Dowd) are incorporating as well. Not all stuttering is external, and a lot of stutterers have trouble matching their thoughts to initial speech. Automatic speech, we can do. Stutterers usually don't have automated speech systems/controls.

The air flow is a good technique, I had a lot of success with it (Emphasis on the word HAD.), but it's mostly beneficial for vocal chord stress and problems. A lot of research has been conducted since Schwartz, and while vocal chord pressure is the cause for a certain percentage of stutterers, it certainly doesn't apply to all. A lot of Freud's research has been debunked, and a lot of science unleashes new knowledge, theories, etc, and debunks old ones. That's also why READING is easier for a larger percentage of stutterers. Most stutterers have an easier time reading. Reading is VISUAL. Speaking requires thinking.

Add a plus, and a lot of things that many therapists and stutterers themselves overlook, is that there's a lot more to speaking then just the vocal chords. At Hollins, they taught us this. The lips, mouth, tongue and jaw also can and do (At least in many cases.) get you stuck. Make the sound E. Make the sound P. What's the difference between the two? Every word has a vowel. Vowels produce vocal vibrations. That's why most stutterers have trouble with the plosive, frictive and unvoiced sounds. Anyhow, I will continue to follow your blog. I disagree with you on the cause,but still, I admire you and think that your contribution is a valuable one.

Peter Louw said...

Thanks for the comments! Well, it depends on how one defines "neurological". Stuttering seems to be a problem of vocal-fold muscles behaving irregularly due to tension via nerves, so in that way it could maybe be defined as a neurological problem. I'm not a medical person so can't really comment with any authority on that. By the way, many NON-STUTTERERS also find it difficult to match their thoughts to initial speech, so I don't think that stuttering can be seen in the way you mention. I am glad that you find my blog of value. I won't pretend that I know everything about stuttering - I learn something new all the time, and feedback such as yours is very valuable. All the best and kind regards.