The Lowering of the Larynx

I love my small school. Here’s another reason: My professor for the second semester of Spanish also teaches linguistics. If I took this class during the regular school year I would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of having her as my teacher. She only teaches Spanish majors taking high level courses, who have an interest in linguistics.

So today, while explaining the past imperfect indicative, or simply, the imperfect tense, and walking us through the conjugation of the various forms, one of the students had some trouble with pronunciation. Or to be clear, your scribe stumbled badly while trying to say trabajábamos (we used to work… kidding!).

This led to a brief explanation about the role of the larynx in speech; who knew that the human larynx drops as we age, and that the dropping creates our ability to speak. And who knew that until the larynx drops, at a young age, the baby cannot choke…..the raised larynx acts to block food and water from the windpipe.

The details of this fascinating bit of infovoration* can be found here. A teaser:

The larynx works like a valve, opening and closing to let air pass. When it is shut, food can pass into the esophagus at no risk to the lungs. The best place for such a seal is right at the top of the trachea so that no food or drink accidentally goes even a little ways down it, but humans have a second use for the valve. We work it like a musical instrument shaping the sounds made by passing air as we speak. The musical valve works best if we pull it a bit down into the trachea so that the air wave shaped by the larynx can resonate before leaving the mouth.

At birth the human larynx is in the normal, animal location, enabling babies to nurse without risk of choking. The larynx typically begins to move lower at about three months of age and reaches its final position by age four. People familiar with children’s speech will notice that the start of the relocation is also when infants start to coo. The end is about the time the children finally become clearly intelligible to well-meaning strangers. The lowered larynx lets humans produce a much wider variety of sounds, particularly vowel sounds, than apes can generate.

I’m not sure I would have picked up that bit tasty morsel during the regular semester when my professor would be trying to teach 4 sections of unruly, disinterested freshman the rudiments of Espanol.

*Infovoration – Product which is consumed by an infovore


1 Response to “The Lowering of the Larynx”

  1. 1 Becky July 11, 2008 at 6:57 am

    how cool!! I love learning stuff like this!

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“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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