Linguists Find Ultrasound Translates Dying Languages

When most people think of ultrasound, they think of the technology used to take sonic photographs of developing fetuses in the womb. But there are other applications for the technology as linguists have discovered.

The science of phonetics encompasses how sounds—especially those that make up a language—are spoken and interpreted, the uniquely cultural diction, and the accompanying organizational hierarchy of the phonetic communication.

Ultrasound-one of the few devices that can keep pace with the physical mechanics of human speech—enables linguistic researchers to actually see the tongue as it speaks. The technology has advanced to moving images transmitted to a screen that records it all in real time.

Probes, X-rays, MRIs and other scanning technologies are either too slow, too cumbersome, or just too dangerous to the subject under study.

Diana Archangeli, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, was recently interviewed by Scientific American about her use of ultrasound. Since 2004 she’s used it in her research.

“You can imagine if you walk into a village and say, ‘Look, people, all I want to do is blow-dry your tongue and glue things to it,’ people might be a little nervous.”

And skittishness was a trait that people in the past—especially those in countries and regions with dying languages—exhibited. The peoples there tended to be far behind the technological curve and strange devices that were meant to probe or poke their mouths and throat were looked upon with suspicion…sometimes abject horror.

Yet, because of the rapid advancement of miniaturization, new projection and transmission technologies, and hand held devices that aren’t intrusive or downright scary-looking, Archangeli and roughly 40 other linguistic researchers like her, now have the ability to reach the people who still speak a language that’s quickly fading from the Earth and record it for historical archives and study.

Some of the fastest speech patterns in human language have been captured and stored, including the archaic and fast disappearing “click” consonants many ancient African languages used.

The captured speech, and analysis that follows, permits the scientists to study vagaries of regional culture, the development of sociological structures, community evolution, the origins of people and the transformation, mutation and variation of indigenous languages.Ultrasound technology enhances the entire process and affords the additional capability to create a resource bank of universal phonetics that categorizes and codifies all the languages of the world.

Amanda Miller, a visiting assistant professor at Ohio State University, also incorporates advanced ultrasound technology in her research. Having used it successfully for a number of years, during 2009 she published an important compilation of African click languages including the biophysics of the speech sounds such as where the air originates from, how the mouth constricts when forming the hard consonants, and the actual mechanics of the mouth during articulation of the words.

All those factors led to the creation of a properly classified alphabet—the first of its kind—the International Phonetic Alphabet.

“Once you have the [clicks’ classifications and] sub-classifications,” Miller told Scientific American, “you can begin to see similarities to other sounds…in English, for example,” Miller said.

Other speech experts are now using the advantages ultrasound technology brings to teach foreign languages, school the deaf in the biomechanics of speech and for advanced speech therapy.