A Click of the Tongue; December 2010; Scientific American Magazine; by Lisa Song; 1 Page(s)
Amanda Miller sits facing an old woman in Upington, South Africa, one hand on a cylindrical probe that she holds underneath the woman’s chin. “Speak,” Miller says in the woman’s native language, N|uu, and as the words flow out, an ultrasound screen flickers with the video of a tongue in motion. Linguists are using the same technology that images fetuses to study endangered languages.
For someone who studies phonetics—the science of how sounds are perceived, articulated and organized in different languages—it is crucial for Miller to track the speaking tongue. Miller is a visiting assistant professor at Ohio State University and one of about 40 linguists worldwide who uses ultrasound. This portable technology, which became affordable to linguists around 2000, allows researchers to see the tongue as it moves in real time. It is one of the only medical scanning devices that can keep up with speech; MRIs, for example, are too slow.