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Arch Oral Biol. 2001 Feb;46(2):117-28.

Ontogeny of postnatal hyoid and larynx descent in humans.

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Department of Anthropology, The George Washington University, 2110 G St, NW, Washington, DC 20052, USA.


Postnatal descent of the hyoid and larynx relative to the palate and mandible, which occurs uniquely in humans, is an anatomical prerequisite for quantal speech. This study tested the hypothesis that spatial constraints related to deglutition impose greater restrictions on the rate and degree of hyo-laryngeal descent than do adaptations for vocalization. Ontogenetic data on changes in the size and shape of the pharynx, the vocal tract, and the spatial positions of the larynx, hyoid, mandible and hard palate relative to each other and to the oral cavity were obtained for 15 males and 13 females from a longitudinal series of lateral radiographs (the Denver Growth Study) taken between the ages of 1 month and 14 years. To establish growth patterns, nine linear dimensions of the pharynx and 15 different pharyngeal and vocal-tract proportions were regressed against percentage growth. The results demonstrate that certain aspects of vocal-tract shape change markedly during ontogeny, especially in the first postnatal year and during the adolescent growth spurt. The ratio of pharynx height to oral cavity length (which is important for speech) decreases significantly (P<0.001) from 1.5 to 1.0 between birth and 6-8 years, after which it remains stable. In contrast, regression analyses indicated that superoinferior spatial relations between the positions of the vocal folds, the hyoid body, the mandible and the hard palate do not change significantly throughout the entire postnatal growth period (P<0.05). Sexual dimorphism in pharyngeal shape and size before the age of 14 years is very limited. The results suggest that the descent of the hyoid and larynx relative to the mandible is constrained by muscle function related to deglutition, highlighting the different functional roles of the hyoid during speech and oral transport.

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