Last week a would be sinus infection/cold/tonsillitis/ear infection/watery, leaking eyes thing happened to me for about the 3rd time in a year. It laid me pretty low; so low that, as of Monday morning, I hadn’t been able to talk well since last Thursday evening, and am just beginning to come to today, Tuesday. Friday morning nothing but a creaky noise came out of my mouth instead of what I was trying to say, so I quickly reverted to whispering and it worked. Hurrah!
What was that about? I couldn’t talk, but I could whisper. Got me to thinking. So I asked Hubby, Can people who are mute whisper? For one of the few times in our life together he couldn’t answer or come up with a reasonable fake one. Later on when the daughter and her husband dropped by to pick up the kids who’d been visiting after school, and after offering proper sympathy for my inability to speak, I whispered the same question to her.
At first she said Yes, then like a good scientist she sought corroboration from her husband, who is also pretty smart. No, he answered with little hesitation. But like the man from Milwaukee in the beer commercial, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know why. Well, after mulling it over a bit, he went into a bit of explanation about the voice box, or the larynx (for which the plural is larynges by the way) that ended up saying essentially, if you’re unable to form the sounds that make words then you’ll have the same problem producing a whisper since the same effort to produce a whisper is required to produce speech. That sounded quite reasonable to me, although I regret I probably haven’t been able reproduce the explanation he gave as properly as I would have liked. He always sounds much smarter.
But the question was interesting, I thought, and–yes–maybe stupid to a lot of people, but later I read an article about stupid questions, by an author who reckoned there was no such thing as stupid questions–only stupid people who don’t ask questions because they’re afraid they’ll look stupid.
So as I set out to verify the answers to my stupid question, I ran across this post on the Mad Science Network by Meghan Clayards, a graduate student studying Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. It explained it about as well as anything I was able to find out there, and if you’re curious I urge you to click on that link and read it in its one-page entirety. For those who prefer to skim learn, as at my age I do, here’s my interpretation.
The way we make sounds in speaking is either by pushing air through the vocal folds of the larynx (you can feel this by placing your hands on your throat at the Adams apple when you make a sound), or by making a small constriction somewhere in the mouth and pushing air through it, as when you make the “f” “s” or “sh” sounds which don’t require vibrating vocal folds. That is also the same method for producing whispers.
So the answer to my stupid question turns out to be Depends. If one of more of the vocal instruments in your larynx is injured or distressed , as they would no doubt be when you’re suffering post-nasal drip like the Niagara Falls cascading down your throat, then of course you can whisper because you can still make those constrictions inside your mouth, but words or sounds through vocal folds are going to be a strain at best.
What is one to do then? If you’re suffering from seasonal or other setbacks, settle onto a comfortable chair with books and magazines all around you at arms length, maybe a TV remote nearby, covers piled up to your neck put your feet up and don’t even try to talk. The healing will come eventually, and if you can cough loud enough, which you probably can, maybe they’ll feel sorry that you’re a little under the weather and they’ll offer to drop everything and come and make you a pot of nice hot tea with honey or lemon.
And rather than feeling sorry for yourself, lay there for awhile and think up a few stupid questions of your own. Then ask me. We’ll learn together.