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  4. The Articulatory Possibilities of Humankind: Speech Sounds in the World’s Languages




The Articulatory Possibilities of Humankind: Speech Sounds in the World’s Languages



Public, Staff, Students

The event is part of the School of Health Sciences Dean's Lecture Series.

Language enables people to communicate and the substance of language is grounded in the medium of speech. Speech sounds have been studied in the ‘Science of Phonetics’ since the dawn of scientific curiosity. However, it was not until quite recently that phoneticians started compiling systematic inventories of speech sounds in the languages of the world in order to identify the various phonetic features (i.e., physical dimensions) used by human beings to articulate speech. The most recent inventory compiled at the Max Planck Institute in 2019 (ongoing) boasts a survey of 2,186 languages from all corners of the world and contains a total of 3,183 phonetically different speech sounds. Keeping in mind that languages like English and Dutch only use about 40 different speech sounds, the actual diversity in speech in a world perspective is truly impressive.

The main aim of this talk is to describe some of the more frequent patterns in the distribution of speech sounds in the languages of the world. This will answer questions such as “Which are the most common sounds in languages?” and “Which speech sounds are rare and exceptional?” These examples will serve to illustrate the diversity of speech. Furthermore, it will be attempted to identify some of the underlying principles which may explain these sound patterns. Besides discussing the perceptual reasons for specific distributional patterns, some of the physiological restrictions on speech-sound production will be reviewed. In addition, it will be argued that the impact of environmental conditions, such as the terrain in which the language is spoken, may have to be taken into account in understanding specific speech patterns.

Speaker Bio:
Jo Verhoeven is Professor of Experimental Phonetics in the Division of Language and Communication Science at City, University of London. He holds a degree in Germanic languages and an MSc/PhD in Phonetics from Edinburgh University. He has taught in Linguistics and Phonetics at universities at home (Edinburgh, Oxford) and abroad (Aarhus DK, Antwerp BE). He has published widely on a large number of phonetic topics ranging from prosody to the experimental study of fricative devoicing, the acoustics of vowel systems and asymmetries in lingual articulation during speech. He has also published ground-breaking research on motor speech disorders with a specific focus on dysarthria and Foreign Accent Syndrome. In addition, he has been closely involved in study of speech characteristics of children with cochlear implants. Jo Verhoeven is the developer of Ear Trainer, which is an award-winning learning environment that teaches language students about speech-sound variability and the phonetic transcription of speech. He is presently writing a book on speech sounds in languages of the world.

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When and where

6.30pm - 8.00pmTuesday 4th February 2020

BLG07 University Building City, University of London Northampton Square London EC1V 0HB United Kingdom

Contact Details

City Events Team

+44 (0)20 7040 8037

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