A recent study reported that babies laugh both while inhaling and exhaling, in contrast to most adults who just do it while exhaling. The work was done by Disa Sauter, from the University of Amsterdam, “Adult humans sometimes laugh on the inhale but the proportion is markedly different from that of infants’ and chimps’ laughs.” I guess Jimmy Carr is the exception that proves the rule, as he explained to James Corden on The Late Late Show, he creates the sound of a ‘happy dolphin’ because he laughs while breathing in (an ingressive vocalisation).
This got me thinking about other examples of vocalising while breathing in. I don’t think it is something that is done while talking in English, unless you gasp with astonishment. But there are languages where some words are said while inhaling. A good example of this is how “yes” or “that’s right” can be said in Norwegian while inhaling. This video shows it in action in three scenarios.
The third example I can think of comes from beat boxing. It is vital that beat boxers can make sounds while breathing in and out so they can keep a rhythm line going without having to pause for breath. For my book Now You’re Talking, I interviewed Dan Stowell from Queen Mary University of London about his research into beat boxing. Dan showed me a way of creating a snare-drum sound. When he does this, his mouth is
distorted sideways as he sucks air in through his teeth creating a sound like a stiﬂed sneeze.
The technique is a bit like that used by the beat boxer in the MRI video below. Watch what happens as they make the high pitched drum sound. The sound is accompanied by the tongue suddenly dropping at the back. (The tongue is the largest rapidly moving thing in the video and is surprisingly big!) At the same time as the tongue drops at the back, a gap will be appearing to the left and right to allow the air to suddenly rush in and create a sound. You can’t see this on the video, because we’re just seeing a cross-section through the middle of the head.
As we can make sounds while breathing in, why do we usually speak only while breathing out? For starters, for prolonged speech the adult vocal anatomy is set-up to work best while breathing outward. When we say a vowel sound, we push air out of our lungs and at the larynx a buzzing sound is created by the opening and closing of the vocal chords (see animation below). The problem with doing this while inhaling is that the throat above the vocal chords is not as well shaped to get the right air flow to set the vocal chords in motion, as the throat below the vocal folds. When you push air out of the lungs it is much easier to get the right air flow at the larynx. Furthermore, to speak while breathing in you have to overcome important reflexes that are designed to stop you getting stuff in the lungs and choking.
Ingressive speech in Scandinavia seems to mostly be about keeping conversations flowing, as in the Norwegian example above. They are used as an injection that you do to tell the talker you’re still interested and listening. But as noted in the recent research in laughter, ingressive vocalisation is also done by chimps and other animals. Just listen to a cat purring. It seems that ingressive speech is a very old universal vocalisation technique.
Can you think of any other vocalisations done while breathing in that I’ve missed?
 Orlikoff, R.F., Baken, R.J. and Kraus, D.H., 1997. Acoustic and physiologic characteristics of inspiratory phonation. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 102(3), pp.1838-1845.Follow me