June 19, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Can mute people clear their throats?

I'm assuming all people who are mute lack any voicebox/vocal cords, so can they clear their throats? Or can they breathe through their mouths normally or do they do this regularly? I would assume they would rarely use their mouths except to eat food, but I have no clue.
posted by lain to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This posting has caused me to clear my throat numerous times trying to figure this one out. A-hem. My thinking is that it is not necessarily my vocal cords that require clearing. That the throat as a structure isn't only for speaking. (Obvious, I know sorry.) Clearing the throat to me is about mucus, something that I think would be present with or without vocal cords. A-hem.
posted by typewriter at 8:23 PM on June 19, 2006

It depends on the person. It isn't always the case that a mute person has no vocal cords; sometimes it's because they never learned to use them. People who are deaf from birth can clear their throats and will sometimes emit shouts or cries. The reason they never learned to speak is because they weren't able to hear others speaking.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:43 PM on June 19, 2006

Don't forget that a person who is mute may also be due to problems higher up (aka in the brain, at the speech centers). So they may have language problems, instead of physical problems.
posted by ruwan at 9:23 PM on June 19, 2006

As the above poster says, there are many reasons why someone will be unable to speak.

If a person is unable to speak due to stroke (aphasia) they will often have normal ability to clear their throat and do other kinds of things with their mouths (swallowing, making faces). However other types of neurological deficits will cause both speech problems and swallowing disorders, usually when the brain region controlling throat and tongue motor function.

On the other hand: Someone who is mute due to damage to their larynx can probably only clear their throat using a coughing action. However the part of their larynx that is used to make an 'ahem' noise is also used to generate vocalizations and so it's unlikely they'd be able to do either.
posted by drmarcj at 10:04 PM on June 19, 2006

I would assume they would rarely use their mouths except to eat food

You're leaving out smiling, kissing, breathing, etc. ;-)
posted by frogan at 10:36 PM on June 19, 2006

You're leaving out smiling, kissing, breathing, etc. ;-)

Doing up zippers on gloves...
posted by jon_kill at 6:25 AM on June 20, 2006

Not all people who are mute lack a larynx; in fact I'd guess the majority of them do not.

That said, occasionally a stroke will cause a person to be unable to clear their airway of normal secretions. It turns out that this ability to clear the airway, of which "ahem" is part, is actually vital for life. Without the ability to clear the airway, people tend to die rather soon of aspiration pneumonia.

Sometimes such folks with a stroke will not recover the ability to clear the airway. In that case, a permanent tracheostomy is placed under the larynx and people are given suction machines with long skinny tubes; they introduce these tubes into their airway via the trach and suck out all the gunk. This is not as good as being able to keep the airway clear naturally, but it keeps people alive.

So the point is that living people can either clear their throat somehow, or they can die from chronic aspiration.

If the question is, "Can someone without a larynx say 'ahem'?" the answer is no. Laryngectomized people can't make much noise at all.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:07 PM on June 20, 2006

My father's side of the family, up until my grandfather's generation were all deaf/mutes. I can verify that they made many different noises, including throat clearing - though my favorite was when my grandfather would watch wrestling (Killer Kowalski, anyone?), get all wrapped up in the action, and start making all kinds of honks and crazy yells at the screen.
posted by Liosliath at 2:38 PM on June 20, 2006

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