Biological Basis of Speech  

Whalen, D. H.* & Lindblom, B.

*Haskins Laboratories

In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2005). Edited by K. Brown. Oxford: Elsevier.


Speech, like language, is a biological system. Because it is the part of language with a physical realization, the immediacy of the biology is more apparent than it is for syntax and semantics, but it forms a part of that complete biological system. Language is generally considered the defining characteristic of humans, and it will develop in every neurologically normal child with virtually any exposure to linguistic material. The large investment that is made in being able to acquire and use language is justified by the immense rewards for using it, and the severe penalties for being unable to. The biological basis of speech has three main components: the physiology of the vocal tract, the physiology of the perceptual system (primarily the ear but also the eye and, occasionally, other systems), and the neural resources that allow their use for communication. The genetic underpinnings of these functions being beyond the scope of this article, the focus will be on functional aspects.

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