Getting excited about voiceless phonemes

Sometimes it takes a malfunction before you really understand how something works. I once lived in a flat where the electrics couldn’t handle too many things being on a once, so sometimes turning on the toaster would cause the kitchen light and all the appliances to turn off until you flicked a switch in the hall. However when this happened the main light in one of the bedrooms and in the corridor would still stay on. This malfunction illuminated (I do love a pun) that the electrics in the bedroom and corridor were on a different system than the rest. Well, I’ve just had a similar revelation about my voice.

You can categorise phonemes, the bits of sound that make up words, on their voicing. Voicing is basically if your vocal folds vibrate or not when a sound is produced.  So a voiced phoneme such as /z/ is produced when air passes though vibrating vocal folds, while /s/ – which is otherwise produced in exactly the same way as /z/ – is a voiceless phoneme because it is produced without vocal fold vibration.  You can feel this difference by placing your hand on the front of your throat while making ‘zzzzz’ and ‘sssss’ noises. While this is something I can understand perfectly in theory it just isn’t something I really thought about until now.

I now have laryngitis.

Laryngitis means my vocal folds have become inflamed and can’t vibrate as they should do. I’m trying not to talk to avoid damaging them further, but last night I attempted to talk to my mum and realised that I can make some sounds without difficulty, although I can’t produce coherent words. The sounds I can make are the voiceless ones that are produced without much vocal fold vibration. This makes complete sense when I actually think about it and while theory is all well and good actually having the different systems demonstrated to me (just like with the electrics in my flat) is really pretty cool!

Although I became more excited than I probably should have when I connected the theory to what was my voice was actually doing and I now know why I can hiss like a snake but not formulate words (all English vowels are voiced), this isn’t a particularly useful revelation. What I need to do now is learn Parseltongue. Hssss.

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