Mouth Geography...Or, Sleep Apnea and Linguistics?
William E. Arlinghaus
The University of MIchigan, A.B. Theoretical Linguistics

Broadly viewed, the human mouth is a cave.   Stalactite upper incisors fit neatly into stalagmite lowers.  A salivary river keeps the cave moist and feeds a host of small organisms that populate this cave.  The uvula, a skin flap at the back of the mouth, hangs down into the entry to the air passage into the body.  (If you wish to read about the biology of the uvula, please check out any number of other sites.)  The uvula has a linguistic function in the formation of some consonants.   In some individuals, when the uvula flops against the back of the mouth cavity during sleep, a blockage of air flow occurs and the supply of oxygen is cut for a few instants.  This problem can apparently be more than mere snoring; it can be a serious medical issue called sleep apnea.  Thus, the uvula serves as a sort of a dam to the flow of air.

One way to improve flow is to remove the dam.  Indeed, uvular surgery appears to be one solution to serious sleep apnea.  Unlike the concrete man-made dam, the uvula is living tissue including muscle fiber.  Thus, it seems natural to wonder if there might be a way to "train" the tissue to stay out of the dam-like position:  to divert the dam's action on the flow rather than the flow's action around or over the dam.

Language trains parts of the mouth.  From English, the tongue learns to take a position to say "th".  From Zulu, it learns various clicks to supplement vocal chord noise.  There are numerous interesting sounds that come from the myriad human languages of the world.  Indeed, there are languages that employ the "uvular trill" as supplementary to vocal chord sounds.  Most or some dialects of French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Swedish employ the uvular trill.  Thus, several research questions of possible interest emerge:

1.  Do individuals who use the "uvular trill" as part of their language pattern on a regular basis have better "trained" uvular muscle fibers than do others?
2.  Do language groups using uvular trills have a lower (higher) incidence of sleep apnea than do language groups not employing the uvular trill?
3.  Depending on the answer to 2, might training of the uvular muscles, through the systematic linguistic study and practice of phonetics, divert the damming effect of the uvula and relieve at least some sleep apnea issues?

Listen to the sounds of the author making uvular trills in the linked .wav file.  Figure 1 shows an animation of the visual profile of the sounds.  Note the regularity of pattern.  The animation first shows the entire pattern.  It then successively zooms in on the yellow line retained in original position in the strip at the top and altering position in the screen filling most of the animation.

Figure 1.  Animation of view of uvular trill sound at successive levels of detail.  Note the periodicity in the final sound (yellow line centered in it as a reference line). 

Figure 2 shows the pattern as a set of 12 screen captures.  The reader wishing to have animation, but also to have control to stop it at will, might wish instead to view the linked movie file.

Do individuals who can easily replicate this pattern have a greater or lesser likelihood of sleep apnea?  Is there a relationship at all?  It might be an interesting question to pusue!


Wikipedia, Stalagtite,
Wikipedia, Uvula,
Wikipedia, Uvular Trill,
Persistent URL:

Software used:

Adobe Photoshop
WavePad Master's Edition, NCH Software.

Solstice:  An Electronic Journal of Geography and Mathematics
Volume XIX, Number 1
Institute of Mathematical Geography (IMaGe).
All rights reserved worldwide, by IMaGe and by the authors.
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