Getting Lippy, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series
The power of speech. Something many take for granted. So much so that the basics of the creation of sound often escape common knowledge. Write anthropomorphic works and I promise you this is a remark you will see, “But they can’t speak without lips!”
Alright, for the purposes of the second entry in my series we will ignore the other forms of communication: body cues, sign language, writing. Today we’re talking about the ability of audible speech. I hope you have come with a sound mind, pun very much intended.
Inside the Voice Box
Most of us talk without thinking about how it is actually done. We developed the ability so long ago it’s subconscious. Inside our necks we have an organ called the larynx. This structure controls several things, including closing off your lungs from food when you swallow. But it also suspends the vocal chords. Controlling the air flow through these flaps of tissue is a large part of speech and pitch. What you hear is the vibrations of air. We’re basically wind instruments.
Most mammals have a version of this organ. Dogs have one very similar to our own, note the two diagrams provided. The parts correspond.
Birds have an organ called a syrinx. A bit more on that later. Reptiles, amphibians and even some fish have a simplified version, some utilize bone ridges to produce vocalizations. However some animals have opted to be voiceless and have evolved beyond the basic organ in favor of other adaptations. Yes, this does make it trickier to support the concept of the latter obtaining speech. The case is the strongest in mammals and birds. Remember, with anthropomorps we are talking about a fictional world with either a fantasy suspension of disbelief or a sci-fi explanation of genetic alterations or alien life.
“Dogs can’t talk, they don’t have lips.”
Well, there’s two things wrong with that statement. One, dogs most certainly have lips. I know, I have painted enough smiling dog lips as a pet portrait artist. Phoenix shows off her sweet smile, that fur-less flesh looking a bit like an earthworm along her teeth is her lower lip.
Ashenpaw, my late border collie, disproves another aspect I have heard. That they can’t from shapes enough to effect sound. Oh yeah? Howling allows a lot of phonetic differences. And this old bad boy would grumble “momma” if I was late getting his dinner ready. There are quite a few videos online of dogs mimicking human speech, albeit limited by their real world physicality.
Thing number two that’s wrong with the statement:Ventriloquism is proof that you don’t have to move your lips to speak, it’s merely easier to do so. Speech is largely the placement of the tongue in the mouth, where the tongue strikes the teeth (if at all), and internal mouth cavity shape with air flow. I am not a ventriloquist, but I love watching skilled performers like Jeff Dunham. Watching shows like this prove that even though the average person uses lip shape to form words, it is possible to produce speech without them.
Moot point though in animals that have lips anyway.
Of course birds don’t have any form of lip. Ever heard a parrot speak? That torpedoes any notion of lips being a requirement for speech.
Parrots mimic human speech and other sounds through using the syrinx, an organ similar to the mammalian larynx, however the avian version is located at the fork between the lungs. This means they can actually produce two different sounds simultaneously by controlling the flow individually. Pretty neat. Parrots are capable of mimicking complete vocal patterns and are capable of forming associations if the context is strong enough, such as saying “Hello” when the phone rings. Some can form quite the vocabulary … including a colorful one if someone likes to cuss in their earshot.
As to why they copy so many different sounds including power tools, car horns, etc, the current theory is that in wild parrots could use the different vocalizations to determine where a potential mate was from and use that information for selection. It’s also recently been discovered that parrots have individual names for one another. There are unique sound combos used by parents to address individual chicks that they keep throughout their lives. Yes—this is in wild parrots.
Next time you hear a parrot screeching, it might be the avian equivalent of, “Johnny! Get your tail back here right now!”
Next in the series, Thinkin’ It Through