What value do we place on the sound of our own voice? How does that affect who you are as a person? – Roger Ebert
In a recent post titled “Speech as a river of electricity” (the analogy is Emerson’s), I wrote that language is an intimate part of our identity which for most people begins with speech and stays centred there. The act of speaking is impressively intricate – a marvel of biological mechanics in tandem with the complex cognition by which our species is privileged.
This struck me anew when I watched Remaking my voice (embedded below), Roger Ebert’s gracious talk at TED2011 about the importance of communication and how he achieves it since permanently losing his voice. With the help of his wife, Chaz, two friends, and a computer voice generator, Ebert describes the loss, the challenge of coming to terms with it, and the efforts made to replace, rediscover, and recreate his voice by various means.
no particular day when anyone told me I would never speak again. It just sort of became obvious. . . . Because I had lost my jaw, I could no longer form a seal; and therefore my tongue, and all of my other vocal equipment, was rendered powerless.
Good humour, care and generosity radiate from Ebert and suffuse his words whether he writes them or has them delivered by someone else or by a computer. Chris Jones wrote in an Esquire article last year that Ebert’s anger “rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down”. His is a happy presence, quiet and thoughtful but also demonstrative and lively, his eyes sparkling and alert. He talks about how lucky he feels that his condition, while it sometimes slows his expression, does not prevent it. Far from it.
We are social creatures, most of us, with an intense need to share our thoughts and experiences. Ebert, via Chaz, mentions a Twitter friend who can type only with his toes. I’m reminded of Christy Brown, who wrote and painted with his famous Left Foot, and Christopher Nolan, who typed books with his forehead. Imagine the patience. In company that is divided by language, we will gesture, mime, and draw, improvising ways to break linguistic boundaries and tell stories to one another. Online, we are spoilt for choice. Ebert again:
Writing on the internet has become a life saver for me. My ability to think and write have not been affected, and on the web my real voice finds expression. . . . If I were in this condition at any point before a few cosmological instants ago, I would be as isolated as a hermit. I would be trapped inside my head. Because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream.
Christine Kenneally, in The First Word, writes that “for all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation.” It is a breath of (normally) meaningful sound, gone in an instant unless recorded or committed conscientiously to memory, in which case it is but a distorted echo.
Writing is different. It survives directly. Ebert, a writer of considerable skill and experience (he is the first film critic to win the Pulitzer prize), will be well aware of the peculiar and intimate alchemy of writing, the hushed endeavour to translate, arrange, and set down our thoughts to our satisfaction, and of the clarity it can bestow when we do it well.
In Writing as Thinking (PDF), a paper published in 2008, Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic put it like this: “Paper can be like a conversation partner, but with the enhancement that the words do not dissolve into the air”. They quote I. A. Richards’s great line that a book is a machine to think with. To paper and books we may add other writing and recording media. Oatley and Djikic continue:
What is written can also be taken up by someone else who does, as it were, the backward translation of words into mental models within which he or she can think. In this way, thought can be passed from mind to mind. Also the writer can be the reader, can replay an externalized thought in language form back to himself or herself, and take part in the iterated movement by which thoughts can be improved.
I’ll stop here before I’m tempted to ramble on again. Here is Roger Ebert’s talk. If you can set 20 minutes aside for it, you’ll be very glad you did.