Speech as a river of electricity

March 5, 2011

The analogy is Emerson’s, from his essay on poets. I was re-reading it around the time the Fortnightly Review asked me to write something about The King’s Speech, and Emerson’s essay has a passage that is remarkably suited to one of the film’s principal themes: the occasional difficulty of fluid expression. This coincidence led me down several trains of thought that emerged as the article from which I now quote:

The familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how astonishing even its basic mechanics are. Breath swells from our lungs, moving up through the trachea to be shaped by vocal cords, tongue, teeth, jaws and lips and emerge from our mouths as a series of sonic pulses that spread as waves into the world around us. Ears are shaped to receive these vibrations, turn them into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain, where these “rivers of electricity” are unpacked at high speed as sounds, words, and (ideally) sense in other people’s minds.

It is an intricate system that blends physics and biology in a kind of spontaneous everyday alchemy. So much can go wrong, the wonder is that it so often doesn’t. But when we falter, and falter repeatedly, our vulnerable sense of ourselves is undermined. Language is an intimate part of our identity, and for most people it begins with speech and stays centred there. Even when we read, we speak to ourselves. To speak publicly, we must play a role: it is a performance; to do it well, we must be comfortable in the role. To speak like a king, Albert had to feel like one – and he didn’t, at least not at first.

The King’s Speech has been showered with awards, including a Best Picture Oscar, and has received much critical and public acclaim. Not unanimously, of course: its politics and historical authenticity have been soundly challenged. But it’s an enjoyable, effective, and interesting film.

My short essay is called “Radio signals and royal symbols: Language and The King’s Speech”. It’s not a review: more a series of notes on speech, sound, symbols, and the cultural significance of radio at the time George VI’s voice was required to make a declaration of war.

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A note on the Fortnightly Review: first published in 1865, its founder, Anthony Trollope, wanted it to be “impartial and absolutely honest, thoroughly eclectic, opening its columns to all opinions, without any pretensions to editorial consistency or harmony”. It was an editorial experiment; so too is the new series, which is edited by Anthony O’Hear and Denis Boyles.


Containers of jokes and metaphors

February 14, 2011

The world is emblematic (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

On Twitter I follow an account called preschoolgems, which posts some of the things spoken by children attending a pre-school where, presumably, the account holder works. For instance:

I was born on a space needle.”
A clock is a house for time.”
Your eyes look extra magical today.”
I keep trying to go off in the distance.”
There’s a wolf in my tummy and a porcupine in my bum.”
Once, a long time ago, I had the whole world, and then I lost it.”
What was the first word ever?”
Plants are more important than games.”

You get the idea. Some are amusing but unremarkable, others irresistible; most are pretty charming, fresh, and effortlessly imaginative.

A few weeks ago I read the following gem: “One day I will tell the last of my jokes and then I will have to fill my body up with jokes again.”

As well as amusing me, it reminded me of a book I’d recently read: George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The book covers some of the same ground as the better-known Metaphors We Live By, a shorter work Lakoff co-wrote with the philosopher Mark Johnson. Both books make the case that our conceptual and linguistic systems are intrinsically and deeply metaphorical.

Metaphors are vital for the communication of ideas, especially complex or abstract ones, e.g., covers some of the same ground. Countless everyday metaphors are rooted in how we physically sense, experience, and orient in our environments. A familiar example of this is how we conceptualise our bodies as three-dimensional containers – vessels with boundaries through which things pass in and out.

Many metaphors are based on this simple concept. One of the ways we understand and talk about emotions is as substances, often fluids, in these containers. When we are sad we feel empty inside. Recovering, we are filled with relief, and may even brim with joy. If we lose our temper we cannot contain our anger; we need to get it out of our system. The language of eating evokes the analogy closely: when we overeat, we are stuffed, fit to burst, with no room for more.

We rely automatically on such expressions. The associations that inspired them are effectively invisible, integral to the flows of speech and thought – inevitably, given their ubiquity. Metaphor is a way for us to relate to (grasp) abstract ideas in terms of simpler, more concrete ones; it is pervasive in, and indispensable to, our language and our mental activity.

So when a novel example appears – from a child, say – suddenly and clearly it shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.

Emerson, in his famous essay Nature (1836), remarked on our ancient habit of using words we have “borrowed from some material appearance”; he said this tendency “may be daily observed in children . . . As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry”. The child I quoted might run out of jokes now and then, but not of poetic metaphors.