Thanks to our prehensile thumb, my fellow hominids and I can make advanced tools, type on our keyboards, create innovative solutions for our organizations, and in just about every other aspect leave our pre-Neolithic ways behind. Our thumb is clearly one of the key differentiators between humans and our four legged friends. But there’s more to the story. Have you ever wondered why a chimpanzee can be trained to put words together (on paper), why every dog around the world can spell W-A-L-K in the language of his caregiver, and yet why neither one can sit down and have a conversation with us?
It’s all in the larynx. Home to our vocal chords, the larynx is necessary for sound production. In humans, unlike chimpanzees and dogs, it’s located far back in our throat. This location is key for advanced oral communication. Hmmmm. Interesting connection!
By quickly closing our vocal chords, we can stop the airflow in our throat. It’s the sound we make in the middle of the word “uh-oh”. Try it! Can you feel how your throat suddenly tightens? Nothing goes up, nothing goes down. American English speakers are more than just a little fond of the “uh-oh” sound. In fact, we use it almost every time we have a word that ends with the contraction, ‘t: don’t, won’t, wouldn’t, etc.
For non-native English speakers, this can be especially confusing with the word can’t. Let’s think about it. Can and can’t are both spelled with the letter ‘a’; the only spelling difference is the letter ‘t’ in can’t. And yet we don’t pronounce the ‘t’. Instead, we quickly close our vocal chords and use the “uh-oh” sound.
In our diverse workforce, what can we do to be more effective speakers? With respect to “can” and “can’t”, I’d recommend the old fashioned, “cannot”. It may take longer to say, but at least it eliminates the need for, “Was that ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”