Jun 21st, 2015
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Texas Woman's University
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INTRODUCTION Phonetics is the study of the sounds of language. These sounds are called phonemes. There are literally hundreds of them used in different languages. Even a single language like English requires us to distinguish about 40! The key word here is distinguish. We actually make much finer discriminations among sounds, but English only requires 40. The other discriminations are what lets us detect the differences in accents and dialects, identify individuals, and differentiate tiny nuances of speech that indicate things beyond the obvious meanings of the words. THE VOCAL TRACT In order to study the sounds of language, we first need to study the vocal tract. Speech starts with the lungs, which push air out and pull it in. The original purpose was, of course, to get oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide. But it is also essential for speech. There are phonemes that are little more than breathing: the h for example.Next, we have the larynx, or voice box. It sits at the juncture of the trachea or windpipe coming up from the lungs and the esophagous coming up from the stomach. In the larynx, we have an opening called the glottis, an epiglottis which covers the glottis when we are swallowing, and the vocal cords. The vocal cords consist of two flaps of mucous membrane stretched across the glottis, as in this photograph: The vocal cords can be tightened and loose

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