Familiar prenatal tool proving helpful for linguists

How might ultrasound, a tool long relied on in pre-natal medical settings, help with language study? As it turns out, the same technology that images fetuses can help with the study of endangered languages, teaching foreign languages, and assisting the deaf to speak.

Innovative scientists are turning to the technology to study and track the tongues of their subjects in real time. As it happens, it is one of the only medical scanning devices that can keep up with speech. And since the portable technology became affordable to linguists in about 2000, about 40 have begun using it.

It’s also a welcome improvement over the x-rays and glue-on electronic probes that had been used prior to ultrasound. The first exposes the subject to harmful radiation, while the second tends to be inconvenient and not especially comfortable for those being examined.

Using ultrasound, researchers have been able to capture some of the fastest sounds in human speech: the clicking consonants used in a number of rare African languages. Linguists did not know how these sounds were produced, making them difficult to order in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the universal system that catalogues all the sounds in the world’s languages.

Thanks to the technology, research published in 2009 identified more than 40 different kinds of click consonants, organizing them based on attributes such as airstream (where the air comes from), place (where the mouth constricts), and manner of articulation. This information has now allowed the clicks to be properly classified.

Till next time,

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