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Exactly what it says on the tin: how can a repressive government quickly but non-permanently disable human vocal cords in a way that allows only that government to restore them?

Said government uses vocal cord disabling, among other things, as a terror tactic: speak out, and they'll literally remove your free speech. How would this work? For instance:

  • Is there some kind of substance that can be applied to vocal cords in order to stop them from functioning?

  • Do vocal cords not work if some kind of protein is missing?

  • Can some kind of substance be injected into the neck to paralyze the larynx?

  • Can an anesthetic be injected followed by the vocal cords being manually severed?.

  • Can something be inserted into the trachea to wedge the vocal cords open while still enabling breathing?

Preferably, whatever this is can be done with in minutes, is fully reversible, is only fully reversible by the government, poses no ill effects to the victim's health beyond removing their ability to speak, and is painless, but I'm willing to accept answers that don't meet those criteria if any of them are impossible or improbable. I'm also willing to go as far as defining "transplanting a larynx to fit the old one" in terms of "reversible".

Presume that the setting's tech level/tech availability is capable of doing things like transplanting larynxes on a widespread scape - I know it's been done in real life on occasion, but IIRC, it's only been twice.

Also, I don't want answers related to cutting tongues out; the authoritarian, repressive government would rather that their victims remain unblemished in that regard.

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    $\begingroup$ Just a side remark, don't forget that most people communicate through they fingers and the internet now. So you'd need to find a way to block their access to internet or their phones. $\endgroup$
    – Jemox
    Sep 6, 2021 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ Christ. If anyone can actually answer this question, do humanity a favour and keep it to yourself. $\endgroup$
    – Ne Mo
    Sep 6, 2021 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @NeMo Or do this authoritarian regime in disguise a favor and tell me. :) $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Sep 6, 2021 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean, disable one given person, or disable a given group all at once? $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Sep 6, 2021 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Teddy et al -- all good points, and we can already see it in action on FB, YT, TWT, and the like. I think this kind of punishment would be more for high profile media personalities on television, radio and the blogosphere. This country's analogues of Limbaugh, Hannity & Bongino. It would be pretty effective if they were forced to do interviews while so impaired. Just to drive the government's point home! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 6, 2021 at 18:01

9 Answers 9

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How About Nooo!

This is no way whatsoever a plausible or even a possible method of state sanctioned terror --- I mean! --- correctional reeducation.

Vocal cord paralysis is a life threatening emergency. If the state paralyses them, it would be as good a death sentence. They play a part not just in speech but also in breathing and swallowing. That said, there are, of course, ways of paralysing the vocal cords, e.g. in preparation for anesthesia, but we don't want the patient to remain paralysed!

Your only really viable alternative will be to intubate your victim or fit your victim with a tracheostomy tube.

As you can see, an endotracheal tube is inserted through the mouth and the inflatable balloon prevents the tube from being (too easily) removed. Obviously, a person can't talk if no air can pass the vibrating vocal cords. This procedure should take about 15 to 30 seconds. A little anesthetic cocktail before hand will render the victim unconscious and unable to resist. A locking device can be placed around the head to prevent the device from being removed.

enter image description here

A more humane option is to perform a tracheostomy and place a properly sized trache tube. This is placed below the vocal cords, so the victim can not speak. Air flow is diverted from the lungs and out through the throat. Notice in the picture, just like with the ET tube, this punishment will be effected by using a cuffed trache tube, which will prevent speech. Again a locking strap can be placed around the neck to prevent removal.

This procedure takes a little longer, generally not more than 20 minutes to half an hour, and is completely reversible.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ All right, good answer, have a +1. I'm going to edit the question from "disable vocal cords" to "ability to speak", since that enables a wider range of answers. Thanks - your answer was a bit of a wake-up call. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Sep 6, 2021 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the role of vocal cords in preventing aspiration of food and drink is more important than their role in speech. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 6, 2021 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ @KEY_ABRADE --- Don't edit your query too much! Once answers are given, your edits will have to respect what they present. Basically the edit you propose kind of invalidates my entire answer. As there are MANY ways to disable speech that have nothing to do with the vocal cords. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 6, 2021 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ Having had two friends with tracheostomies, you're incorrect. They had ones with non-return valves, so exhaling still engaged the vocal cords. They could both talk and even sing. Even if your repressive regime didn't go for non-return valves, the original versions (pre 1900) simply required the user to place a finger over the end of the tube as they exhaled, in order to talk. Simple enough. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Sep 6, 2021 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak -- Actually, a cuffed trache tube will serve as the "plug", and is completely reversible after sentence has been served. See the edited section in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 6, 2021 at 21:57
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Shock Collars

Simplest method is just a shock collar around the neck. Easy to do and undo by the untrained.

Also doubles as a bugging device and GPS locator for true big brother action.

Surgery gets complicated. Collars are a simple fix which can be mass produced.

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  • $\begingroup$ Already in production, in pet shops, lol. Good plot for evil corp targeting expanding the market, lol $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 6, 2021 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg It's inhumane to use them on animals but dissidents is ok...... $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Sep 6, 2021 at 2:23
  • $\begingroup$ Dissidents, mmm, misspelled a not ruling class, eh? Lol $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 6, 2021 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne dissidents = those who diss. Note the double s. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2021 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg Just need to modify them to be held with a lock of some kind, and toughen them to not be susceptible to easy removal via hacksaws or other easy-to-acquire tools. Things you don't have to worry so much about with most pets... $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2021 at 16:01
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If you really want to suppress (anti-government) speech, then you can simply use a throat mike to reliably detect the subject speaking, and then suppress it by emitting other sounds - white noise, a (loud) message saying this person has his/her/their speech suppressed according to the law nr...; or play some official propaganda 1. All you need is some simple electronics, sound playing system, an amplifier and a speaker, all easily fits into a collar.

If you are afraid the subject would remove the mike and the device, there are already proven, well established ways how to enforce wearing something (though we usually do not put them around the neck)...

1 And moving slightly from the 1970s technology to the 2020s, pair it with a speech recognizing technology and some keyword lists (or a full featured topic detection) and suppress only the speech about specified topics. Or perhaps only whitelist permitted topics (such as shopping).

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  • $\begingroup$ The "problem" with this is that ongoing speech suppression (of anything, not just subversive speech) seems like a desirable attribute. OTOH, that's easy to fix. One advantage of this approach is that the device itself monitors compliance; no need to be "caught" or wait for someone to flip the enforcement switch. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Sep 6, 2021 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ Just a fun thought: if the device simply "replaces" the speaker's voice with a predefined message (which presumably stops playing if the person stops trying to speak), I can imagine a particularly creative dissident learning when to stop speaking so as to speak using the message's own sounds, by just silencing the letters they don't need. $\endgroup$
    – theberzi
    Sep 7, 2021 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ Or the subversive speakers create their own language or pidgin that allows them to plot and scheme. It is rotated frequently in an arms race with the state, who patches their detection algorithms as fast as they are able. $\endgroup$
    – aaronP
    Sep 7, 2021 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ Use noise canceling technology in your throat mike to create sounds that cancel any speech. Or even more fun, the 'annoying sounds' you cover any speech with are loud shouted slogans like "the government is always right! follow all orders they tell us!', causing any rebels to seem loyal when they try to talk. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2021 at 16:34
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Ballast.

Vocal cords need to vibrate in a specific range of frequencies to allow speech. Several illnesses cause the vocal cords to change their mechanics and cause "voice loss": by being covered in mucus, by being more or less taut, by being swollen -- or by having nodules on them. These latter are usually of a cancerous nature, but they achieve their voice-loss effect by just being there and weighing enough, which isn't difficult to duplicate.

A device can then be designed that can securely attach to the vocal cords (using needles for example) and contain an anti-tamper mechanism, not unlike clothing anti-theft tags. By itself, or by incorporating, say, a minuscule depleted uranium pellet, the device will have enough mass that the vocal cords will be unable to produce sound.

This is not completely harmless: apart from the risk of infection and post-removal scarring, the longer the vocal cords stay inert, the more likely the need for vocal re-training and rehabilitation. Irreversible voice loss is conceivable, permanent voice change a definite possibility.

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Have a neck-ring with directional speakers in it.

There's a few approaches here

Repeating what the victim says apparently will stop them from speaking, failing which loud disruptive noises, or rickrolling the victim at volume

Alternatively, produce sound waves that will destructively interfere with what the victim says - like how noise cancelling works

Both approaches are reversible, fast to do and relatively humane

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    $\begingroup$ For projecting the victim's voice back at them, it will work temporarily. I don't think it would take much self-training to talk through it though. I've had echoes in Teams and Zoom meetings that disrupt me. I just have to focus on not actually listening while speaking to get through it. It is disruptive, and distorts the conversation, but it isn't a permanent, or even long-term, method of shutting someone up. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2021 at 15:24
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieffenbachia

"Its English names, dumb cane and mother-in-law's tongue (also used for Sansevieria species) refer to the poisoning effect of raphides, which can cause temporary inability to speak."

They used to punish slaves by forcing them to chew Dieffenbachia leaves.

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  • $\begingroup$ You'd have to control the dosage to avoid irreversible damage to vocal chords. The question as stated wants the effect to be "nonpermanent" but does not say how careful that government wants to be about accidentally doing permanent vocal chord damage. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Sep 7, 2021 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ I like it. Seems like such a plant could be cultivated/bred to better do the job in a controlled fashion. Then reduced to a specific dosage injection. $\endgroup$
    – aaronP
    Sep 7, 2021 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ Are there chemicals that make you unable to speak? Yes, Raphides, "found in more than 200 families of plants." +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Sep 8, 2021 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ um, actually, no. Raphides do nothing specifically to vocal cords, they "simply" induce painful swelling of tongue, lips and the upper throat, which might - or might not - impair speech by rendering it unintelligible; and they do so through a mostly mechanical action. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Sep 8, 2021 at 21:59
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Yes, for your original version(vocal cords) and your edited one(speech)

The main driver in both cases is the brain. So if you inject a sufficient amount of (preferably diluted) C2H5OH or someone takes it per oral in sufficient quantities - it can be observed that speech can become an issue.

Broca's area, located in the left hemisphere, is associated with speech production and articulation. Our ability to articulate ideas, as well as use words accurately in spoken and written language, has been attributed to this crucial area.

From here https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/speech-language - has additional information. Problems with speech can be induced by all kinds of factors, temporarily and permanently. Take look at medical cases.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you suggesting to keep the subject permanently drunken? $\endgroup$ Sep 6, 2021 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ @JannPoppinga no, I imagine it is an easy way to test how such disabling may look from inside $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 6, 2021 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ I would suggest some sort of implant that is able to confuse/short-circuit/disable parts of the brain at will. Easy to mass-produce, can be injected at birth without major surgery, and since it's affecting the brain it has endless additional possibilities. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2021 at 21:26
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Have you considered the brain? Broca's area is located in the inferior frontal gyrus and regulates breathing patterns while speaking and vocalizations required for speech. There's been recent research into turning off areas of the brain.

"The research, led by David Amaral, distinguished professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and spearheaded by graduate student David Grayson, targeted the amygdala — a small, almond-shaped region deep within brain. The amygdala is known to be important for emotions, especially fear.

Using a technology called “designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs,” or DREADDs, the team genetically modified the neurons of the amygdala to produce molecular on-off switches, or receptors, that are triggered by a drug administered to the animal. When the drug is injected, the receptors shut down activity in the amygdala — effectively turning off this brain region."

You then need to control access to the drug.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Dr Wu, you may note that your answer is almost identical to that given by MolbOrg - it's something to watch out for. Anyhow, take our tour and refer to the help center as and when for guidance as to our ways. Enjoy worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2021 at 6:49
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Play it like the US Navy

The US Navy deposed a patent for a device that does exactly what you're asking, by replaying the song emitted by the speaker twice, once almost simultaneously and once a bit later.

From the patent filing:

According to an illustrative embodiment of the present disclosure, a target’s speech is directed back to them twice, once immediately and once after a short delay. This delay creates delayed auditory feedback (DAF), which alters the speaker’s normal perception of their own voice. In normal speech, a speaker hears their own words with a slight delay, and the body is accustomed to this feedback. By introducing another audio feedback source with a sufficiently long delay, the speaker's concentration is disrupted and it becomes difficult to continue speaking.

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