Speaker: Bryan Gick
When: Friday, 09/14 at 3:30pm
Where: Education 211
Title: How humans don’t have lips

Researchers concerned with speech and related functions of the vocal tract have long relied on lay conceptions of terms like “lips” and “tongue” to describe ostensible parts of the anatomy. Close examination of these and other vocal tract structures strongly suggests that they are anatomically ill-defined, culture-specific concepts (which partly explains why researchers have never agreed on how to describe them). Nevertheless, they remain fundamental building blocks in our otherwise highly formalized theories of phonology, phonetics, sound change, language acquisition, and so on. Biomechanical modeling and production experiments will be used to show that, in addition to being anatomically indistinct, these structures are not straightforwardly definable in terms of their mechanical or articulatory function. So, how DO humans have lips? It will be argued that cultural concepts like “lips” (and concomitant phonological categories like [labial]) are indeed useful and relevant, but only in a robust, mulitdimensional, real-world setting – the setting where language happens. Implications for sound change, language acquisition, and the emergence of phonological categories will be discussed.