Speech can produce jet-like transport relevant to asymptomatic spreading of virus

Manouk Abkarian, Simon Mendez, Nan Xue, Fan Yang, Howard A. Stone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

151 Scopus citations


Many scientific reports document that asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals contribute to the spread of COVID-19, probably during conversations in social interactions. Droplet emission occurs during speech, yet few studies document the flow to provide the transport mechanism. This lack of understanding prevents informed public health guidance for risk reduction and mitigation strategies, e.g., the "6-foot rule." Here we analyze flows during breathing and speaking, including phonetic features, using orders-of-magnitude estimates, numerical simulations, and laboratory experiments. We document the spatiotemporal structure of the expelled airflow. Phonetic characteristics of plosive sounds like "P" lead to enhanced directed transport, including jet-like flows that entrain the surrounding air. We highlight three distinct temporal scaling laws for the transport distance of exhaled material including 1) transport over a short distance (<0.5 m) in a fraction of a second, with large angular variations due to the complexity of speech; 2) a longer distance, ~1 m, where directed transport is driven by individual vortical puffs corresponding to plosive sounds; and 3) a distance out to about 2 m, or even farther, where sequential plosives in a sentence, corresponding effectively to a train of puffs, create conical, jet-like flows. The latter dictates the long-time transport in a conversation. We believe that this work will inform thinking about the role of ventilation, aerosol transport in disease transmission for humans and other animals, and yield a better understanding of linguistic aerodynamics, i.e., aerophonetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25237-25245
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 13 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Asymptomatic transmission
  • COVID-19
  • Pathogen dispersion


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