THIS IS THE VOICE
By John Colapinto
As a genre, body part nonfiction would seem to have run its course. We have natural histories of the heart and brain, the skin, the sensory organs. The intestines have a best seller. The penis has a cultural history, and the vagina has its own bible. But wait, you are probably not thinking, where is the 300-page book devoted to the larynx?
It has arrived, and it is exemplary. The author, the New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto, is an amateur rock vocalist with a polyp on his cords. “This Is the Voice” begins with his story, but quickly charges off in surprising and consistently fascinating directions. I did not, for example, expect: national elocutionists, Kim Kardashian’s vocal fry, the last Vatican castrato, the telling silence of lizards, Alexa or the delightful, data-based revelation that humans can reliably hear a smile.
Colapinto makes the case that our larynx — the human voice box — may well be the most important boost evolution bestowed. At its most basic, vocalization requires two pieces of equipment: lungs and vocal cords. For both these items, we have the lungfish to thank. Their lungs evolved from their swim bladder — the internal pool float that helps them hold to a certain depth. The walls of lungfish bladders in particular are so thin that oxygen can pass through them into the blood. Vocal cords evolved as a valve to keep water out of these proto-lungs. Lungfish vocalizations are on a par with the sounds of air escaping the mouth of a balloon. “I am trying to avoid the word ‘farts,’” Colapinto says nobly, “but I’m afraid those were the first vocal sounds heard on earth.”
Speech is, of course, more than vocalization. It’s not just a matter of having the equipment, the author explains, it’s a matter of where it sits. With the shift to upright locomotion, the larynx began to descend — from the back of the mouth down into the throat, where there’s room to create more varied phonemes. The larynx of Neanderthal man, like the larynx of those great orators the chimpanzees, sat higher than our own. This, Colapinto argues, kept them from producing the more gymnastic vowels and sound combinations that set language apart from utterance.
Your own vocal maturation — from mute water-breather to babbling baby to speechifying adult — is a sort of microcosm of the vocal evolution of the species. Infants begin life with the larynx tucked up into the back of the mouth. This makes possible nonstop suckling; unlike adults, babies can swallow and breathe at the same time. The price they pay for such highly efficient nutrient intake is that, temporarily, their speech sounds are limited. With no resonating chamber in the throat, they can manage little beyond mama, dada, ga-ga. As babies transition to solid food — and the risk of choking increases — the larynx begins to drop to a safer and less vocally limiting position.
Another uniquely human vocal trait: sexual dimorphism. Androgen receptors on the human male larynx cause men’s vocal cords to thicken with the hormonal gush of puberty. That’s what lowers the voice. Why might this have evolved? Because a deeper voice made its owner seem larger and scarier, and that gave early human males an edge in competition for mates. Colapinto links this to Donald Trump’s signature speaking behavior. “For a person like Trump, so consumed by the need to dominate and be the alpha male in every circumstance, it seems likely that … he intuitively hit on the expedient of rounding and pushing out his lips to lower his pitch slightly.” At the other end of the scale, we have Michael Jackson and other “puberphonic” individuals, pulling their larynxes higher and reducing the size of their resonating chamber in an unconscious effort to sound forever childlike.
A book about voice and speech must inevitably pay a visit to the academic citadel of linguistics. For how is it that a toddler so quickly and effortlessly puts those fancy new vowel sounds together into meaningful, grammatically correct sentences? The origin of human language has been debated so hotly that at one time the London Philological Society and others banned papers on it — a censure that lasted for 30 years — and Colapinto will likely get some residual heat. He rejects Chomsky’s theory of a “language organ” in the brain and instead takes up Darwin’s emphasis on prosody — the notion that the melody and rhythms of speech are what move us toward language.
Fetuses can’t make out a mother’s words from inside a womb (and we know this because scientists, God love them, have stuck tiny waterproof microphones in there), but they can hear prosody: inflections, accents, the rises and dips and pauses of a sentence. Colapinto shares research that suggests we exit the womb with this scaffolding of language well in place. “French 2-day-olds wailed on a rising pitch contour, mirroring the melodic patterns of spoken French; German newborns cry on a downward arc typical of that language’s prosody.”
Along with prosody, language acquisition depends on the simplified sentences and exaggerated emphases of caregivers’ vocalizations and reinforcements. When the baby scores a hit, the caregiver responds with enthusiasm and repetition, etching in the brain the fundamentals of speech and grammar. The window for effortless language acquisition is open briefly, and once shut, near impossible to pry open. In rare cases of abused children deprived of all vocal contact, later efforts to teach them to speak have failed.
For the rest of us, the closing window provides an excuse for failed efforts to master new languages and explains why it’s so difficult to change an accent. Elite English boarding schools long taught “standard English” elocution — or R.P., for “received pronunciation.” R.P. was the accent of the upper class and, by mandate, of all BBC announcers. In an effort to erase the stigma of non-R.P. speech, England’s original national elocutionist, Thomas Sheridan, urged all citizens to adopt the accent. Most either couldn’t or wouldn’t, with the result that rather than hiding class distinctions, it cemented them into a hierarchy of snobbery. Only with help from the Beatles, Monty Python and a string of Labour Party victories did R.P. become — briefly — something to mock rather than aspire to.
In the equally illuminating and entertaining second half of the book, Colapinto wades into the hotter waters of gender, sexuality, race and politics. He covers the unique and shifting vocal patterns of women, gay men, Black people, transmen and transwomen (whose lack of androgen receptors complicates their vocal transition). It would be easy to misstep here, but Colapinto’s observations are, by my read, informed and respectful.
Winston Churchill makes an inevitable appearance. So does Hitler. Less inevitably, we meet James Ogilvie, an elocution teacher who rode the crest of a national craze for lyceum-style lectures in the early 1800s. Ogilvie would take to the stage in a toga, orating for three hours in a formal Ciceronian style later adopted by senators and heads of state.
Have modern attention spans contracted to the point where we prefer to listen in sound bites? Colapinto doesn’t think so. He points to the popularity of podcasts and audiobooks and argues that we are hard-wired to be drawn to and moved by the human voice. It may not be over the top to suggest, as he does, that the soul, in some sense, resides in the larynx.
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