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Every single depiction out there seems to think that animal teeth and/or mouth are no problem for a perfect speech-therapist approved pronunciation.

For instance the Cat People. They never have any specific accent other than Spanish. So for our possibly speech-impaired cat people, let's assume that the vocal chords remain the same as ours. Dentition-wise, we'll go with chimpanzee teeth but tighter (an arbitrary "middle ground" between human and feline teeth), like so:

is Paint still a thing?

With such dentition and regular human lips, what sounds would be hard to pronounce? I heard that long canines give a lisp, but would people born with long teeth overcome it?

What about cat or wolf chops on an otherwise human face? (still with human vocal chords, and teeth as pictured above) More or less like this:

example

What about Lizard People? Can this jaw really produce every sound we can? Vangaa

And Bird People? Parrots are really good at imitating us, but it MUST somehow be harder to speak with a beak! Tengu GW

Unlike depicted in most media, there is no way they would be able to pronounce the same sounds as humans, is there? What would they be unable to pronounce? What could they pronounce that we can't?

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    $\begingroup$ For your final point - Parrots are really good at imitating us, and any noise they hear. So it MUST NOT be harder. They will be able to pronounce the same sounds as humans - and much much more. We know this because we can hear it from actual parrots :-) $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ For any canine, they'd just sound like Astro on the Jetsons or Scooby Do, so everything begins with an R. $\endgroup$
    – JeffO
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly helpful wrt the cat people: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/22107/… $\endgroup$
    – Michele C
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 14:06

3 Answers 3

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It is not so much the jaw with human speech as the vocal chords. Early attempts to teach chimps to speak have very limited success because chimps don't have the same vocal chords that we do. Later attempts using sign language showed that chimps were capable of very sophisticated language use (mentally) - they just needed to use words they could physically reproduce.

Several bird species (Like the Australian Lyre Bird) have an uncanny ability to mimic just about any sound, and they have teeny pointy little beaks with no teeth at all. So your articulate aliens might be using a similar mechanism.

The other important aspect is the tongue - a lot of consonants require specific tongue movements, and vowels are also created by changing the shape of the throat cavity, using the back of the tongue.

If you have ever listened to somebody who learned your native language as an adult, you will notice that they often mumble, lisp, or otherwise mangle some consonants. This is nothing to do with their physical structure - it is because they didn't HEAR those sounds during the first two years of their life.

It is entirely possible that with human vocal chords and tongue, and learning from birth, your pointy-toothed humans could sound exactly like us.

Otherwise, a few basic linguistic notes:

  • Lips that don't properly seal would soften /p/ to /w/

  • Teeth that don't fully close would soften /d͡ʒ/ to /ʒ/.

  • Someone with a natural ability to purr might be prone using /r/.

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    $\begingroup$ The ability to close your teeth does not preclude the ability to differentiate "j" from "zh"; it may make it easier, but the only thing that matters is the position of your tongue. $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ It's very much the jaw, lips, tongue, glottis, and nasal passages. You can think of the vocal cords as the reed in a woodwind: its vibrations cause a noise, but it's the shape of the instrument and how it changes through manipulation of the airway that make that noise a "voice". $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 19:59
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So... you asked about "humans". Accordingly, per JJH's answer noting the important effect of vocal chords, I'm going to assume that we're talking about human vocal chords (or at least similar capabilities) and are mainly focused on the limitations due to teeth and jaws. (I'm also going to assume a fairly mobile tongue; otherwise, consonants such as we know them are going to be an issue.)

Honestly, this really depends on whether you're actually asking about "humans" (and/or for some reason want to parallel human — and in particular, European/American — language development) as opposed to trying to create a language for a totally different sapient species, in which case humans might not even recognize their language as such. Still, your audience is human, so having something relatable may make sense.

With that said, I'd like to offer the phoneme set I came up with from my own tinkering before seeing this question. This is mostly based on my best guess what limited lip mobility (including inability to fully close the lips while speaking) would do to a language that humans could still speak and recognize. Also, I was approaching this from a perspective of trying to avoid species-specific noises, i.e. something that could be a common tongue in a world of anthropomorphic animals of many species (e.g. Zootopia). One thing this doesn't necessarily account for is the effect of larger teeth, although I don't think that will be severe. If you want to explore that, find yourself a set of fake vampire teeth 🙂.

Ahem. Without further digression:

Vowels

  • Open
    • a ( ɒ ): lock
    • e ( e ): lake
  • Forward
    • i ( ɪ ): lick
    • y ( i ): leak
  • Round
    • o ( ʊ ): look
    • u ( u ): luke

You might be able to add more vowels ([ɔ] in particular), although it may start becoming difficult to tell them apart, especially if you have regional accents ([ɯ] and [ʊ] for example are very similar). Also, I was somewhat trying to keep the set minimal, as that is beneficial for a language shared by many species.

I'm also not considering dipthongs separately, so e.g. [w] and [j] are "on" the chart, but would be represented as [u]+[ɒ] and [i]+[ɒ], respectively.

Consonants

  • Palato-alveolar
    • c ( tʃ ): chock
    • j ( dʒ ): jock
    • ch ( ʃ ): shock
    • jh ( ʒ ): jacques
  • Dental
    • t ( t ): ten
    • d ( d ): den
    • th ( θ ): thick
    • dh ( ð ): then
  • Stop
    • k ( k ): ruck
    • g ( g ): rug
  • Fricative
    • s ( s ): sue
    • z ( z ): zoo
  • Others
    • h ( h ): hick
    • l ( l ): lick
    • n ( n ): nick
    • r ( ɹ ): rick

One of my additional objectives was being able to write this language phonetically in ASCII (i.e. using only the English letters A-Z); I've given both that representation as well as the IPA equivalents. Normally, you wouldn't have a c or j immediately followed by a distinct h, because that combination is quite hard to pronounce without an intervening vowel. However, if really needed, this could be written with an apostrophe, e.g. taj'ha.

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  • $\begingroup$ (1/2) Thanks for the detailed reply! It's interesting that we came to different conclusions. I had phonemes in mind when I asked my question: simply those both my cat, my dog and I can all pronounce. So I would go wider on the vowel chart to add [a], [ɯ], [ɛ] and semivowels [j] and [w]. Regarding vowels, both my dog and cat can utter quite the range of Rs, from [ɾ] to some sort of [ʀ]. I would definitely add [m] for cat-people (my cat says it all the time), and something between [m~w] for dog-like creatures, though I've heard some [m]s on occasion. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ (2/2) I am however doubtful about [θ] and [ð], for the sole reason that they are quite rare and thus already difficult even for humans. But dogs and cats having both teeth and tongues, why not! [k], [g], [d], [t], [s] and [z] are the real question as far as I'm concerned. I don't think I've ever heard them from my pets, (unless snoring counts as [s]), but they don't seem to lack anything throat-wise, so once again: why not. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Cats can certainly hiss, though that's not exactly [s]. I suspect those may be more an issue of intelligence than physical ability, though it may also be that their tongues aren't capable. As I don't have a canine-shaped mouth, I can't really say. As for the "rarity" of [θ] and [ð], you do realize you used them 11 times just in your second comment? (For comparison, you used [k]/[g] only 9 times.) Adding [r] is probably safe, but I was intentionally avoiding close-lipped consonants ([m], [p], etc.); some animals can definitely make these (horses! [ʙ]!), but not sure they'd be universal. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ I think my point still stands regarding [θ] and [ð]. They may be prevalent in English and Nordic languages, but that's about it worldwide, and children take longer to use them. You could have made the same argument for clicks if we'd been exchanging in Xhosa. [k], [m], [p], and [t], on the other hand, are among the most common consonants for their ease of pronunciation. In any case, you're right about each species's having a different repertoire of sounds. Not sure the IPA offers a symbol for hissing, though (nor for other such 'exotic' sounds). Maybe something like an [ʂ]/[h] mix. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ Well, yes, because IPA is based on languages humans speak... that said, I'd say [x] is pretty close (loch, chutzpah). Not the easiest phoneme to insert into a word, though. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 14:48
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We would not be able to comprehend them, or learn their language

Note: we don't know if animals like cats, dogs, birds or cattle have language. Animals, or some animals, could very well have language already, without us being aware of that fact. The point of this answer: we would have trouble interpreting it as language. Let alone comprehend it.

Speech is closely tied to physiology

Our speech is 1:1 tailored to our physiology. Our vocal tract and mouth can produce a familiar sound spectrum, allowing humans to discern (tell apart) hundred or more phonemes, which represent speech. Humans are able to produce a wide variety of sounds we can recognize, compose with and call "language". Animals have a different physiology. Their sounds are unfamiliar to our brains, Their nicely separated phonemes may sound the same for us, because we did not learn to discriminate in our perception.

Example: bear people

Supposing bear people will have bear heads, their speech will not sound very clear to us humans. In many ways, bear speech would be very different from human speech. The bear head is larger and also broader than a human head, meaning lower frequencies.

bear people vowels

We can hear them. I don't think frequency range is the issue, rather physiology of the bear's vocal tract and mouth. Our ears are not used to the frequency ranges (sound spectrum) produced by mouth-dimensions of another species.

A "bear vowel" may not sound like any particular vowel humans recognize. As a result, humans will also not be able to discern different bear vowels. We did not learn their characteristics. So it will be difficult to learn any animal's language, or the language of a human with an animal head, for that matter..

bear consonants

A "bear consonant" can come from anywhere unfamiliar to humans. The lips have a different shape, longer and wider to the back. There could be 12 types of "b" and "p". The nasal channel is also wider, the teeth are larger so the animal will produce lower frequency noise than humans.. too low would impair bear-consonant recognition by humans.

My conclusion: for a human, it would be very difficult to communicate with a bear-man.. or a cat-man.. or whatever fantasy human with an animal head.

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