ISCA Archive PPST 1991
ISCA Archive PPST 1991

What is the input to the speech production mechanism?

John J. Ohala

In the fascinating history of the development of the different forms of the Roman alphabet there is a period between the 3rd and 10th centuries when the small letters, the so-called 'lower case' or uncials, developed gradually from the angular, largely straight-line Roman capitals. The curves and new lines joining parts of the letters came about when writing was done more on paper than in stone or wax, more with pen or reed than with chisel or stylus, such that it was done more rapidly and without lifting the writing instrument off the inscribed surface. Here we can see how task constraints: writing rapidly, and physical properties and limitations of the hand and of the material used led to a modification of letter shape. Yet when we use lower-case letters today, whether with a typewriter, word processor, or even in handwriting, it is not true that they are present due to these original constraints of the task, the writer, and the instruments. Lower-case letters as opposed to capital letters have been fossilized or conventionalized. Even so, contemporary handwriting may still show many of the effects from the same forces that originally led to the development of the uncials: parts of letters not previously joined - capitals or uncials - are often linked by a curve by virtue of the writer not lifting the pen from the paper.

Variant forms of pronunciation are similar to this. Some of the variants observed in speech are fossilized remnants of earlier modifications of speech due to speaking rapidly or softly and others are modifications due to the same factors acting at present - on-line, so to speak. The first type of variants are selected by the speaker as capitals and lower-case are: they are drawn from an inventory of separate norms. The second type of variants are not so much selected by the speaker as they are just consequences of physical and physiological constraints of the speaking mechanism which accompany choice of a different speech style (e.g., the more open jaw position of shouting, the lesser amplitude of articulatory movement when speaking rapidly). In the second case, the variants may spring from a single norm.

In studies of speech production it is important to know what the input to, the speech production mechanism is but unfortunately it is not as easy to differentiate between these two types of variants in speech as it is in writing. For one thing, speech norms have no existence outside of the mouths (or more properly, the brains) of speakers; norms for letter shapes have the advantage that they can be printed in, and consulted in books. Second, in some cases the discipline studying such variants, phonology, has never succeeded in developing a viable method to differentiate these two types of variant. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that there is only one fully developed method in phonology (so far) when it comes to giving an account of variation: this is the method of comparative reconstruction plus two more restricted methods which are based on it: internal reconstruction and phonemic analysis.

Many of those working on spoken language may think that the concerns and methods of the historical linguist are irrelevant to their interests. This is not the case, though, because virtually all the "linguistic" information as to the underlying structure of speech (i.e., the "norms" according to which speech is generated) comes from linguists who, whether they know it or not, base their pronouncements on an application of the comparative method. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the method therefore is vitally important to an informed study of the variations in pronunciation. In what follows I propose first to give a brief sketch of the comparative method and to point out some of its successes and limitations as they impact on the study of speech variation. Then I will suggest very programmatically how new methods may be developed which would better serve these new interests.

Cite as: Ohala, J.J. (1991) What is the input to the speech production mechanism? Proc. ESCA Workshop on Phonetics and Phonology of Speaking Styles, paper 005

  author={John J. Ohala},
  title={{What is the input to the speech production mechanism?}},
  booktitle={Proc. ESCA Workshop on Phonetics and Phonology of Speaking Styles},
  pages={paper 005}