Linguistics through art and music: My story on how I came to do what I do
I have always been an artsy individual, so it seemed only natural that I should pick fine arts as my undergraduate major. Frankly, high school did not leave me feeling very confident that I would be able to study much of anything else. Pursuing fine arts allowed me to develop an appreciation for how the visual arts use modeling as a lens through which we can better understand nature in all of its beautiful (and horrendous) complexity. But while fine arts was a comfortable choice, I was not fulfilled and started exploring other areas of study, and I eventually discovered linguistics.
Initially I decided to take a linguistics course under the misguided belief that it might somehow help me with my communication skills. However, I soon developed a fascination with the bits and pieces of language, the wonderful strangeness of phenomena like implicature, and the machinations underlying speech production – the “meat” of our vocal tract. My interest in the study of the process of speaking became intertwined with my interest in music that features various “abuses” of the human voice (Skinny Puppy, Swans, Einstürzende Neubauten… that sort of stuff). I was ultimately drawn into an academic descent into the lower vocal tract.
My descent began innocently enough. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies in linguistics, my phonetics professor, the late (but very great) Michael Dobrovolsky handed me a dusty VHS tape entitled “Pharyngeal Articulations”. On the video was a laryngoscopic view of John Esling’s throat as he performed a series of laryngeal manipulations, including lowered and raised larynx voice qualities and, most importantly, growling. These vocalizations absolutely resonated with my musical interests and I was utterly captivated. I sought out John Esling and pursued graduate studies under his supervision. This would ultimately lead to many laryngeal adventures with John, including the production of a book which gave me a chance to express my love of the larynx artistically – by drawing the states of the larynx (see Figure 1). However, it was during my graduate studies that I discovered an entirely new means to tap into my artistic need to create models: I had the opportunity to create a 3D computer model of the larynx.
Figure 1: My hand-drawn illustrations of the laryngeal constriction continuum from fully unconstricted (left), as in ‘deep inspiration’, to fully constricted (right), as in epiglottal stop [ʡ]. These illustrations appear in Voice Quality: The Laryngeal Articulator Model, a book I co-authored with John Esling, Allison Benner, and Lise Crevier-Buchman. It also happened to win the LSA’s 2021 Leonard Bloomfield Book Award.
Given my background in art, the opportunity to develop an interactive articulatory model of the larynx seemed like the ultimate chance to marry my interests together. The only problem was my general lack of any formal training in the necessary technical fields. However, I was not deterred, and I soon learned what was needed to build my model (with no small amount of help from the online courses offered by Stanford University and MIT and some very patient engineering friends of mine). While topics like math, physics, and computer programming had previously seemed out of reach for me, having a clear purpose suddenly made them fresh and exciting. They started to reveal their secrets and surprising interconnections. I began to view them as a new sort of paint brush through which new dynamic forms of representation and understanding became possible.
As it would turn out, the computational skills and appreciation for math and science that I developed during my years as a graduate student have allowed me to pursue a career as a linguist. I have had the humbling opportunity to explore many issues within phonetics and phonology by applying computational modeling (for example, see, Figure 2), and I know that this will continue to be the way forward to help us tackle questions that would be difficult or impossible to address otherwise.
Figure 2: Video of the pressure distribution from 0 to 10 kHz for the vocal tract airway in the shape of an [u] computed using the Boundary Element – Rayleigh Integral Method (BERIM). As a fine arts student, I could not possibly have imagined that one day I would be tinkering with Fortran code to simulate 3D vocal tract acoustics.
I now also find myself honored to be in the position to teach phonetics to new generations of students, and modeling is a key part of my teaching. Physical models are helpful for teaching about anatomy and physiology of speech and hearing. In my own course, I take it to the next level by transforming my lessons into hands-on artistic experiences with anatomy. Each lesson, students build models of speech structures in class using modeling clay (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Hands busy at work getting to know the structures of the vocal tract through sculpture in my course on anatomy and physiology of speech called “The Meat of Speech” that I teach at NTU in Singapore.
We have a lot of fun, but it also never ceases to amaze me how such a simple act of using modeling clay to “unproject” 2D representations of body structures into physical 3D structures reveals insights about form and function and produces that ‘a ha!’ moment in my students. I apply a similar hands-on approach in my other more technical courses, where we “digitally sculpt” the sound of the human voice. I know what it’s like to feel as though these more technical topics are “out of reach”, but I have the egalitarian belief that everyone can be empowered by becoming acquainted with them. In this way my occasionally STEM-shy humanities students begin to see the beauty in math, physics, and computer programming and how the marriage of disciplines provides powerful models that can help us gain new insight into speech and language.