How do humans speak?

The vocal cords and larynx in particular have evolved over time to enable humans to produce a dramatic range of sounds in order to communicate – but how do they work?

Vocal cords, also known as vocal folds, are situated in the larynx, which is placed at the top of the trachea. They are layers of mucous membranes that stretch across the larynx and control how air is expelled from the lungs in order to make certain sounds. The primary usage of vocal cords within humans is to communicate and it is hypothesised that human vocal cords actually developed to the extent we see now to facilitate advanced levels of communication in response to the formation of social groupings during phases of primate, and specifically human, evolution.

As air is expelled from the lungs, the vocal folds vibrate and collide to produce a range of sounds. The type of sound emitted is effected by exactly how the folds collide, move and stretch as air passes over them. An individual ‘fundamental frequency’ (their standard pitch) is determined by the length, size and tension of their vocal cords. Movement of the vocal folds is controlled by the vagus nerve, and sound is then further fine-tuned to form words and sounds that we can recognise by the larynx, tongue and lips. Fundamental frequency in males averages at 125Hz, and at 210Hz in females. Children have a higher average pitch at around 300Hz.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 07

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