A mouthful of [d]

December 10, 2011

In an essay about The King’s Speech for the Fortnightly Review, I wrote that the very familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how amazing its mechanics are. This occurred to me often while reading J.D. O’Connor’s superb Phonetics, a Pelican Original from 1973.

The book has a lovely paragraph on how the [d] sound in do is articulated. Complete description of such a sound is impossible because it would require mentioning an infinite number of features, so in general we note only those features that “seem to contribute substantially to the sound”.

Some of the following terminology might be unfamiliar, in which case refer to this diagram of the human vocal tract. Here, then, is [d]:

the lips are somewhat rounded (ready for the following vowel); the teeth are close together; the soft palate is raised; the tongue-tip is firmly in contact with the alveolar ridge and the sides of the tongue are in continuous contact with the sides of the palate; the back of the tongue is raised to approximately the close vowel position (again ready for the vowel); air under pressure from the lungs is compressed within the completely stopped mouth cavity and pharynx; the tongue-tip (but not the sides or the back) then lowers suddenly allowing the compressed air to escape with a slight explosion; just before the explosion the vocal cords start to vibrate in normal voice and continue to do so into the vowel.

Professor O’Connor says that although this description may seem quite comprehensive, it is very far from complete. But it serves its basic and practical purpose. [Edit: Note the two references to readiness for the following vowel. The mouth assumes different shapes for [d] depending on what comes next. To see (or feel) this for yourself, prepare to speak do, da and dee but stop before the vowel.]

It’s also a very pleasing account of an act most of us perform more or less identically, yet uniquely, every day without a moment’s thought. Think of how much exquisite unconscious coordination goes into a full sentence, or a week’s worth of conversation. How fortunate we are to have this facility.

O’Connor (1919–1998), known familiarly as “Doc”, taught phonetics at University College London; John Wells’s obituary in the Guardian describes his lectures as “witty and effortlessly informative”, which I can believe, and his writing as “elegant and readable”, to which I can attest.

A list of O’Connor’s many publications may be found on Jack Windsor Lewis’s website.

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.