Hearing the ‘chune,’ not the words
“I’m confused by language,” said Stuart.
I wasn’t sure what he meant. His language confused me. I assumed he meant that he found certain sentences and paragraphs deliberately obfuscating.
“Many people are confused,” I said. “Politicians use language deliberately to confuse, and so do corporations. Mystify. Mystify. Vague it away.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Stuart. “This is all true, and I am always scratching my head over what comes out of a politician’s mouth. But my confusion is much more basic: Language itself. Speaking. How does it work? How does it function?”
Stuart had the look of a bunny rabbit looking at a hatchet, with the concentration and intensity, but also the complete lack of comprehension.
“I mean, take the same sentence or phrase said by an Alabaman, a Brooklynite and a Calcuttan. The sounds they utter are utterly different, yet, we can understand each immediately. So, it cannot be the sounds alone that convey meaning. The Awe-stryl-yin ‘Good Die’ is never taken in New Jersey to be about death. We can parse it out just fine.
“The New Yorker who asks his friend, as Woody Allen had it, ‘Jeet jet?’ and answered, ‘No, jew?” It just means they’ll go to the deli and get a pastrami sandwich.
“So, of course, we don’t speak in words. How could we? Just try it. Speak the sentence out slowly and with clear articulation for each syllable: ‘Did you eat yet?’ and ‘No, did you?’ and you realize you sound like a synthetic recording, like Stephen Hawking or something.
“No, we speak in whole sentences, or at least in well-rehearsed phrases. ‘I’m going to go to the store’ is really ‘Ime gonna go tooda store,’ or, ‘tooda stow,’ if you are in a different region, or in another place, ‘staw.’
“In fact, the letter ‘R’ by itself is a summation of the problem. Howcum we can understand words with the letter ‘R’ even though it varies from the veddy veddy British ‘D’ version to the rolled burr of the Scottish, to the little flip of the tongue in Spanish and then to the back-of-the-throat gutteral French ‘ghghgh…’ the voiced uvular fricative.”
And here Stuart gargled something in his throat that sounded very much like a possum expiring on a kitchen floor.
“Merci,” he says, “Meghghgh-see.”
“And then there’s the undifferentiated liquid of Asian languages, which we make fun of, not understanding that ‘L’ and ‘R’ are such close relatives. ‘So solly,’ says the vaudeville Chinese stereotype. And ‘flied lice,’ and its opposite, ‘rotsa ruck.’ You cannot help but throw up a little in your mouth, thinking of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s really embarrassing.”
“More than embarrassing; even more than offensive. It is tin-eared. That’s not what’s going on with the undifferentiated liquid.
“But then, there’s the American ‘R,’ which is probably the single most distinguishing giveaway to an American accent whenever an American attempts to speak another language. ‘Moochas grrrassee-aas.’ That rhotic ‘R’ hangs in the mouth way too long. ‘RRRRRRRRR,’ like some dog growling when you get too close to his bone. ‘Murrrrr-see boe-cooo.’ Americans speak in such a rhythm that you almost have to stretch the ‘R.’
“But then, we stretch out our consonants, too. Listen to Mexican speaking and you hear the clipped, quick syllables rattle by. Then hear the American imitate him and you see a slow train entering the freight yard. I am grateful whenever one of our presidents attempts to say a few phrases in Spanish, but I also cringe at the wrong rhythm. It’s like a Republican playing jazz. The beat is all wrong, to say nothing of the nasality of the American voice, which — thanks to the prevalence of Valley-girl speak — is only becoming more and more unavoidable in American speech. At some point, American English will pass French for the ‘most-nasalicious’ trophy.
“I used to love English, the sound of it, the sense of vocal pleasure achieved by sounding out those luscious consonants. We conventionally say that French is such a beautiful sounding language, or Italian. And they are, in their own way. But usually we say such things to distinguish our own lack of appreciation for the language we were born into.”
“Yes, my wife likes to try to ‘hear’ human speech the way we hear bird calls or cattle lowing,” I finally get a word in edgwise. “She asks, ‘What is the sound of human speech,’ not meaning what is the content of the language, but what is its animal timbre. She tries very hard to filter out the semiotics and syntax and hear what is said the way we hear whale singing or coyotes howling. It’s nearly impossible, because we understand our mother language so instantaneously as it is spoken. There is almost no time lag there to climb down into and grasp the sound waves. The closest she gets, she tells me, is when she hears children playing in the schoolyard. A human flock of cackling birds. But it’s hard to hear it without being blocked by knowing what is said.”
“Yes,” said Stuart, “and if you do manage to do something of the sort, you realize now what an ugly direction American speech is taking, how whiny it has begun sounding, with all that torpor and nasality. I think of, say, John Gielgud speaking Shakespeare and I love the words that leap crisply from his lips, the deliciousness of them, lovingly shaped and tasted as they are spoken. And then you compare that with, say, Taylor Swift — and I’m not picking on her for any reason other than she is so typical of young American English — and you hear a slow, unconsidered whine. Valley-girl-ism. It’s everywhere. Even our best actors and actresses are now infected with it. In our own lifetime, we have seen the evolution of American English.
“And if it has changed so much in so short a time, I mean the sound of it, the way it is produced in the throat and mouth, imagine how much it has changed since the time of Chaucer. ‘Whan that Aprille with its shoures soote …’ How long before the language of, say, Franklin Roosevelt in an old newsreel, sounds as archaic as that? And I’m not referring primarily to the change in vocabulary, but merely the alteration in vocal production, the next great vowel shift.”
“Yet,” I said, “we can still, if we pay attention, hear Chaucer and understand it. At least for the most part.”
“That is precisely my original point,” Stuart said. “How can it be that when a New Yorker says, ‘youse guys’ or a Virginian says ‘y’all.’ The fact is, as I said, we don’t speak words, but sentences and phrases, all balled up into a little melodic jingle.
“Take a simple sentence, like ‘Please hand me the lamp, I want to plug it in.’ What we really say is something like, “Pleez/ hanmedalamp/ eye wanna plugidin.’ Words elide into tiny musical phrases, like ‘hanmedalamp.’ If there is a single linguistic unit there, ‘hanmeda,’ it is that tune. But the tune changes radically when you say it in another regional accent. In a Yiddish accent, you ask for the ‘lemp.’ In a Downton Abbey voice, you call it a ‘lahmp.’ In a Southern drawl, you ask for the ‘layump.’ These accents cannot even agree on the number of syllables in the word.
“Yet, we absorb the meaning of the sentence easily, no matter which version we hear.
“This tunefulness is that makes it so hard to learn a new language after a certain age. You want to hear the words a Frenchman speaks to you, but he isn’t speaking words, he’s speaking phrases. You are trying to parse out the sounds you have heard into discrete vocabulary, but you cannot do it in anything like real time. The lag is too long. You need to learn a new language not by reading it, where it is separated with little lacunas between type, but in the long swirl of phrase and sentence, as she is actually spoke.
“So, ‘Como esta Usted’ become ‘co-mwes-taoos-ted.’ And I’m not even taking into account the problem of hearing a Hispanic ‘D,’ which slides between the tongue and teeth like an Old English thorn.”
“Yes. You know, when I go to France, I have little trouble reading Le Monde or Le Figaro. But I have the hardest time understanding the concierge or waiter when he asks me a question. I can navigate the type fairly easily because it is all divided up into words, many of which are cognates in English. And it isn’t just that French is so differently pronounced from its spelling. I have the same situation in Mexico with Spanish. Easy to read, harder to hear. And the Spanish is not pronounced at variance with its orthography. But the problem is that the French waiter isn’t speaking in words, but in phrases, in melodies. And I am a toddler, having learned words built with my alphabet blocks.
“The point here is that I can hear my own language spoken in a variety of melodies or accents, even radically different from my familiar usage, and seem to have no difficulty accommodating the changed pronunciations, but have such a damnedly hard time wrapping me ears around even the most proper spoken French.
“I remember the character actor Luis van Rooten, who wrote a series of nursery rhymes in French, which, when spoken out loud, sound like English spoken with a comic French accent. ‘Un petit d’un petit s’etonne aux Halles,’ or ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.’
“I am certain that a Frenchman has the same situation hearing the Marseille accent or the Parisian one, and sails through the different melodies with no problem, but has the devil of the time hearing clarity in English spoken even by Gielgud.”
“You remind me of Lady Mondegreen,” I said. “Hearing language not in words, but in a smear of sound in a phrase. Our hearing is amazing, when you think about it, how we can absorb whole sentences, or chunks of them, without ever thinking of them broken into words. But we can also mishear them. Which only proves it is the melody we are listening to and not the words.”
“Lady Mondegreen? Who dat?”
“You know, a mondegreen, when you mishear something. Like in the folk song, ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray and Lady Mondegreen,’ which was originally ‘and laid him on the green.’ It’s now the official word, like a pun or Spoonerism or Malapropism, for misheard lyrics, or misheard language in general, like the famous ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ in the Jimi Hendrix song.”
“Yes. Mondegreen. I’ll remember that. It’s my point exactly. When we speak in phrases, we often elide the sounds in them into other sounds, not always clearly related. I remember the story of the kid who drew the Nativity scene with all the usual figures and a fat man beside the manger. ‘Who’s that?’ she was asked. ‘That’s Round John Virgin.’ As we speak it, the ‘D’ of ‘round’ and the ‘Y’ of ‘yon’ scrunch our tongue into making a ‘J’ sound, not a simple ‘DY’ sound. And we hear it in ‘John.’ ”
“An old friend of mine remembers when he was camping with his girlfriend and he was inside the tent trying to wrestle with the tent poles while she was outside giving moral support. Then she yelled with some joy and excitement, ‘Look, look, a Glodderbin toad! A Glodderbin toad!’ He poked his head out of the canvas looking at the ground all over. ‘No, up there, in the air — a glider being towed.’ You have to say it in a Southern accent.”
“Ah, the Bufo glodderbinensis. Perhaps one day, some scientist will give a newly discovered toad that name and your friend will be vindicated.”
A physician friend told me of asking her patient if she had ever been seriously ill. The woman replied, “Oh yes, child! I was burnin up in na head. Likeda dyed. People hadda wear them boots and masked ta see me.” The doctor asked what the woman was sick from. The woman replied, “I had the smile a mighty Jeezus.” Real diagnosis? Spinal meningitis.