“A Symphony of Exquisite Timing”
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
HUMAN speech is a marvel. Some 100 muscles in the chest, throat, jaw, tongue, and lips work together to produce countless different sounds. Each muscle is a bundle of hundreds to thousands of fibers. More brain cells control these muscle fibers than are needed to drive the muscles in the legs of an athlete. One nerve cell is sufficient to drive every 2,000 fibers of calf muscle. By contrast, nerve cells that control the voice box, or larynx, may be attached to as few as two or three muscle fibers.
Each word or short phrase that you use has its own pattern of muscular movements. All the information needed to repeat a phrase like “How are you doing?” is stored in the speech area of your brain. Does this mean that your brain uses a unique, inflexible step-by-step muscle program to repeat every word or phrase? No. The powers of speech are far more awesome than that. For example, you may have a sore in your mouth that makes it difficult to pronounce words in your unique way. Without conscious thought, the brain adapts the movement of speech muscles, enabling you to articulate the words as near as possible to your normal manner of speaking. This points to another marvelous fact.
A simple verbal greeting like “Hi” can convey a host of meanings. The tone of voice may show whether the speaker is happy, excited, bored, rushed, annoyed, sad, or scared and may reveal different degrees of such emotional states. Yes, the meaning of a single expression can change depending upon the degree of action and the split-second timing of many different muscles.
“At a comfortable rate,” explains Dr. William H. Perkins in his book Stuttering Prevented, “we utter about 14 sounds per second. That’s twice as fast as we can control our tongue, lips, jaw or any other parts of our speech mechanism when we move them separately. But put them all together for speech and they work the way fingers of expert typists and concert pianists do. Their movements overlap in a symphony of exquisite timing.”
To a limited extent, some birds can mimic human speech sounds. But no animal has a brain programmed to produce speech the way man’s does. It is not surprising that scientists have been unsuccessful in their attempts to get apes to make clear speech sounds. According to neurobiologist Ronald Netsell, the skill required to speak can be compared to that of “the unusual person who plays the piano entirely ‘by ear.’” Or as lexicographer Ludwig Koehler concluded: “Human speech is a secret; it is a divine gift, a miracle.”