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What is Phonation?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Phonation is the process by which the larynx, or voice box, produces sounds. Depending upon the sub-field of phonetics, phonation may refer only to the quasi-periodic vibration of the vocal cords that produces voiced sounds, or it may refer to any manipulation of the vocal stream by the larynx. In addition to voicing, phonetic features affected by the larynx include creaky voice and breathy voice. The larynx is also responsible for glottal sounds, such as the glottal stop, pronounced between the vowels in the English "uh-oh."

Phoneticians who study laryngeal anatomy and speech production often take phonation to mean only the quasi-periodic vibration of the vocal cords. You can tell if a sound has this type of phonation by placing your fingers on the front of your throat, and feeling for vibration during speech. If the vocal cords are vibrating during speech, a voiced sound is produced. Voiced sounds include all vowels and nasal sounds in English, as well as consonants like /b/, /v/, /d/, /z/, and /g/. The voiceless counterparts of these consonants, /p/, /f/, /t/, /s/, and /k/ respectively, differ from the voiced versions only in the lack of vibration of the vocal cords.

Some languages have more voice distinctions than simply voiced and voiceless, and many linguists use phonation to refer to any manipulation of sounds by the glottis. In addition to voiced and voiceless sounds, some languages have creaky-voiced or laryngealized sounds, produced with very tense vocal cords, and breathy-voiced or murmured sounds, produced with minimal tension in the vocal cords. Voiceless sounds are produced with no tension at all in the vocal cords. Beyond these distinctions, some languages use slack voice, with more tension than a murmured sound, but less than a voiced sound, and some include stiff voice, with tension of the vocal cords somewhere between that required for a voiced sound and that required for a laryngealized sound.

Some languages, including English, have glottal consonants produced only by the glottis, or the vocal cords and the space between them. English has the glottal stop, as noted above, as well as the glottal fricative /h/ as in "hat." Glottal consonants are sometimes considered to be instances of pure phonation rather than true consonants, since other consonants are characterized by a place of articulation such as the lips or the teeth as well as the state of the glottis. Glottal consonants, on the other hand, have no place of articulation other than the glottis.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By john1478 — On Jun 19, 2011

I wonder why certain languages have different voice distinctions than others. I would think it is because during the time languages were first being developed, the different types of people around the world had differently designed vocal cords.

For example, maybe the vocal cords developed differently in tropical climates than they did in cold climates. As a result, people spoke in a language that best suited their voice. Is this at all right?

I'm sure linguists and anthropologists have an answer for this question.

By Testy — On Jun 17, 2011

It is amazing how complex our vocal cords are. A few years ago, when I had surgery on my thyroid, I also realized how sensitive they are.

My surgeon told me that a possible risk to the surgery was that my vocal cords could be snapped, forever affecting my speech. Thankfully, that did not happen, but I did have a strained voice for about two week.

Certain words were definitely harder to say than others, and that's because certain sounds vibrate the vocal cords in different ways. I am all better now, but going through that made me appreciate my ability to speak.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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