(A) Frontal view and (B) cutaway side view of the human larynx. The larynx is composed of cartilage elipsis
Learn more about larynx with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Fine manipulation of the larynx is used in a great way to generate a source sound with a particular fundamental frequency, or pitch. This source sound is altered as it travels through the vocal tract, configured differently based on the position of the tongue, lips, mouth, and pharynx. The process of altering a source sound as it passes through the filter of the vocal tract creates the many different vowel and consonant sounds of the world's languages.
During swallowing, the backward motion of the tongue forces the epiglottis over the laryngeal opening to prevent swallowed material from entering the lungs; the larynx is also pulled upwards to assist this process. Stimulation of the larynx by ingested matter produces a strong cough reflex to protect the lungs.
The vocal folds can be held close together (by adducting the arytenoid cartilages), so that they vibrate (see phonation). The muscles attached to the arytenoid cartilages control the degree of opening. Vocal fold length and tension can be controlled by rocking the thyroid cartilage forward and backward on the cricoid cartilage, and by manipulating the tension of the muscles within the vocal folds. This causes the pitch produced during phonation to rise or fall. In most males the vocal cords are longer, producing a deeper pitch.
The vocal apparatus consists of two pairs of mucosal folds. These folds are false vocal cords (vestibular folds) and true vocal cords (folds). The false vocal cords are covered by respiratory epithelium, while the true vocal cords are covered by stratified squamous epithelium. The false vocal cords are not responsible for sound production, but rather for resonance. These false vocal cords do not contain muscle, while the true vocal cords do have skeletal muscle.
Injury to the external laryngeal nerve causes weakened phonation because the vocal cords cannot be tightened. Injury to one of the recurrent laryngeal nerves produces hoarseness, if both are damaged the voice is completely lost and breathing becomes difficult.
Notably, the only muscle capable of separating the vocal cords for normal breathing is the posterior cricoarytenoid. If this muscle is incapacitated on both sides, the inability to pull the vocal cords apart (abduct) will cause difficulty breathing. Bilateral injury to the recurrent laryngeal nerve would cause this condition.
Some linguists have suggested that the descended larynx, by extending the length of the vocal tract and thereby increasing the variety of sounds humans could produce, was a critical element in the development of speech and language. Others cite the presence of descended larynges in non-linguistic animals, as well as the ubiquity of nonverbal communication and language among humans, as counterevidence against this claim.
There are several things that can cause a larynx to not function properly. Some symptoms are hoarseness, loss of voice, pain in the throat or ears, and breathing difficulties.