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July 15, 2021

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Reviewed here: THIS IS THE VOICE (Science)

This Is the Voice (Science, Sociology) by John Colapinto, 2021

A review doesn't usually begin with a discussion of the "Acknowledgements" section of a book, but there's a reason for doing so in this case. In his acknowledgements at the back of "This Is The Voice", John Colapinto admits that it was his editor, Eamon Dolan, who persuaded him to open the book with the story of his own vocal problems.

Seems that, a few decades ago, Mr. Colapinto performed as a lead singer in an amateur rock band. Screeching at the top of his lungs produced a node on his vocal chords that left him with a raspy sound to his speaking voice. No big problem, right? But one vocal surgeon whom he consulted (in the process of researching an article for The New Yorker) convinced him that the sound of your voice has a lot to do with conveying your personality, a sense of who you are. Without the ability to fluctuate the sound of his voice as he might have before the injury, Mr. Colaptinto's speech wasn't giving people a true picture of him.

As we find out in the last chapter, though, he decided to decline the surgery that might have repaired the problem. By way of explanation, he paraphrases Coco Chanel who said that "at fifty you get the face you deserve." As Mr. Colapinto puts it: "I turned sixty-one during the writing of this book. And my voice, with its nicks and scars and telltale rasp, tells its own history of my life, just like yours does."

That editor's advice about opening the book with Mr. Colapinto's personal take on the subject turned out to be one of the guiding principles that makes the book work. The occasional references to personal and family matters help to leaven what otherwise might threaten to become a somewhat dry, scientific treatise. There was the time when his son complained about being teased by schoolmates for his Canadian way of saying "Sorry." (Mr. Colapinto, although raised in Canada, is a New Yorker now.) And there's the time when, hearing his son arrive home from school, Mr. Colapinto called out what was intended as a cheery greeting and the son responded: "What's wrong?" Turns out the dad had just been reading bad news about the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2008 and the son had detected the note of anxiety in the greeting, even though the dad was trying to hide it.

That anecdote comes in a section on how the sound of our voices -- as opposed to the words -- can reveal emotions we're trying to conceal. That's one respect in which --
maybe -- humans have the edge on computers. The best intentions of the inventors of Siri and Alexa notwithstanding, computers can't read subtle emotional changes the way we have learned to do over centuries of evolution.

Another moving point about the revelatory quality of voices comes in a chapter about song. With witness from operatic super stars like Renee Fleming and others, Mr. Colapinto makes it clear that the singing voice shows a person's soul in a way no speech can. In singing, a person is vulnerable and exposed. That's why Barack Obama's closest advisors, including his wife Michelle, didn't want him to sing at the memorial service for the nine people slaughtered at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. They felt it would reveal a sensitivity and candour that wouldn't look Presidential. Which is why his singing at the event had such a stunning effect.

Much of the book, of course, deals with matters that aren't so personal, that are more scientific. There's the explanation of the physiology involved in speech. (Did you know that probably the first animal sound on earth was something like a fart belched by the first fish that was learning to breathe out of the water?) The explanation of how certain sounds are formed, although impressive, can be almost too detailed to follow. (Would you have known that the two c's in 'concave' are formed quite differently because of the different vowel sounds that follow them?) And no matter how keen a fan you are of Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark" you might not have noticed that she pronounces 'can't' more like 'gan't.' That's because her first language was Dutch.

Which raises one of the most important points about speech. When it comes to learning language, our brains are quite plastic in the early years; up until roughly the onset of puberty, we can learn to make almost any sound. After that, our brains have become more or less entrenched in the language we've learned and can seldom adapt to new ones without retaining some trace of the first one.

On this question of how we learn language initially Mr. Colapinto's book touches on the only issue that might be seen as controversial. And if there's an enemy lurking between the lines, it's Noam Chomsky, the internationally celebrated linguist and philosopher. At risk of over-simplifying a complicated subject, we could say that Professor Chomsky promulgated the belief that our brains are hard-wired for grammar; the grammatical system, so to speak, is in our brains before we're born.

Not so, says the more recent scholarship that Mr. Colapinto espouses. Studies across many cultures and languages have shown that the simple ways that caregivers speak to infants impress on their brains the grammatical structure of language. A lot of it has to do with the linguistic prosody, i.e. the aspects of speech that are processed, not in the language areas of the left side of the brain, but in the brain's right side which is associated with the appreciation of rhythm, pitch and pace.

And what about different deployments of the same language? As Mr. Colapinto puts it, "...some linguists call voice and accent the last socially acceptable form of prejudice." That's why Londoners who have picked up the Cockney accent will sometimes try to adopt the more cultured sound of the BBC when being interviewed for jobs. And we've all heard of studies showing that people who sound like they're black tend to get negative responses more often than white-sounding people do when phoning about ads for vacant apartments.

Surprisingly, studies show that regional accents across the US are becoming more differentiated, not less so. This is one of the few areas of human development that have shown Charles Darwin to be in the wrong. He thought that the widespread interaction of humans would lead to a homogenization of language, ending up with us all speaking the same one. On the contrary, the world is becoming more Babel-like all the time. Even though the media subject people to a a broad, across-the-board sort of speech, this doesn't have a homogenizing effect. The reason? You don't pick up your accents from electronic sources. You pick them up from the language that is spoken to you when you're youngest, i.e. the "Motherese," as the experts call it.

Interestingly, humans are the only animals whose voices show a considerable dimorphism, i.e. a difference between the voice of the mature male and the mature female: men's voices lower, generally, and women's voices higher. (Although they tend to come closer together with old age: older women's voices get lower, generally, and men's get higher.)

A lot can be said -- and Mr. Colapinto does say much of it -- about the cultural implications. Women, it turns out, prefer the deep, commanding male voice when thinking about sex but they go for a man with a higher voice when thinking about a lifetime partner, presumably because he doesn't sound so much like a sexual adventurer, more like a homebody. When it comes to the erotics, the vocal organs do respond in ways similar to the rest of the body: a sort of thickening, gelatinous quality -- hence the husky, whispery sounds of seduction.

Mr. Colapinto gives some attention to what he calls the third voice in the human repertory, and that is the voice of gay men. Studies have shown that the sound of a gay man can be reliably identified eighty percent of the time. (Which is not to say that all gay men speak that way or that all men who speak that way are gay.) Given that there's no discernible anatomical difference between gay and straight men, says Mr. Colapinto, the particular sound of the gay voice may come from the man's indentifying more closely with his mother when he was learning to speak.

No book about human speech would be complete without reference to some of the oratory that has been credited with "changing the world." So we revisit some of the most memorable speeches from Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR and JFK, among others. Given that Mr. Colapinto is a long-time staffer at the New Yorker magazine, his opinions on the oratory of two recent US Presidents -- Barack Obama and his successor -- are not surprising. Comments on the latter lead, almost inevitably, to observations on the effect of Adolf Hitler's vocal style. Mr. Colapinto notes that Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, believed that "what Hitler said was immaterial; it was how he said it."; On the subject of political speech-making, Mr. Colapinto offers this sobering caution: "I would even argue, with Cicero and the other ancient philosophers of rhetoric and oratory, that the voice is the primary means we use to decide for whom to vote."

I'm in no position to contest any of the scientific information that Mr. Colapinto has passed on in such a masterly fashion, especially given his enlightening end notes. But one point that he mentions does raise a question in my mind. He points out that his parakeet, although capable of repeating various fragments of human speech, cannot make the connection between the word "seed" and the food that the Colapinto family provides. "We are the only animal," he says, "that can perform that miraculous feat: to make the line between a specific vocal sound and an object that exists in the world." As I understand it, though, a dog like the border collie has been shown to be able to understand the connections between some 300 objects and the words designating those objects. Experiments have shown, I believe, that a really smart border collie can retrieve an object requested from a collection of many objects. Or have such studies since been discredited?

To return to the book's Acknowledgements, it's becoming a trend for writers to include fulsome thanks to various parties but seldom have I seen an acknowledgement section that's so magnanimous in its detail about how various advisers helped the writer and steered him away from certain pitfalls. Mr. Colapinto has pulled off a kind of lowering of the mask (as we might say today) or looking behind the magician's curtain. I'm grateful to him for that honest insight into the writer's craft.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com