Like most people, I hate hearing a recording of my voice — cringing and pleading for it to be turned off. However, I had not given my objections much consideration, until reading John Colapinto’s excellent piece on speech for The Guardian. Our own voice is the only one we hear differently from other people — what we hear when we speak does not come through the air, but in vibrations that pass through the hard and soft tissues of our head and neck. There is often a mismatch in who we know ourselves to be, and how we try to project onto the world, and yet “we remain mercifully deaf to how we perform this ideal self, in a bid to ‘put ourselves across’, to make an impression.”
Colapinto had never much considered his own voice either — until he nearly lost it. A serious vocal strain affected the way he spoke for years and eventually forced him to confront what is lost when your voice is hindered, and nuances of emotion can no longer be conveyed. In fact, our ability to speak is what has given us an evolutionary edge, “it enabled early humans – a relatively slow-running, physically weak, easily preyed-upon animal – to plan and cooperate and strategize with each other to outsmart bigger, faster, more lethal predators.” Aristotle defined the voice as “the sound produced by a creature possessing a soul,” and this deeply personal essay will help you understand why.
Consequently, he said, I had done what many people with my injury do: I had developed strategies for, as he put it, “speaking around the problem” – retraining my recurrent laryngeal nerve (the nerve that, among other things, controls the tension on the vocal cords) to drop the pitch of my voice, slackening my freighted vocal membrane so that the 3 or 4% that was still pliable would vibrate. This reduced the rattle in my voice, but at a cost. It was robbing me of the natural variation in pitch and volume that people use to give colour, animation, expression and personality to their utterances – what linguists call prosody, the melody of everyday speech.
Through prosody, we express tenderness, or anger, or enthusiasm, or any number of other nuanced emotional states that give the human voice its peculiar power to woo, persuade, threaten, cajole and mollify. Prosody makes the difference between the affectless utterances of HAL, the computer in 2001, and the rich and expressive instrument of Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep – or even just the lilting, songlike way you say “Hello” when you answer the phone, so your caller doesn’t think you’re a machine. The term comes from the ancient Greek: pros, meaning “toward”, and ody, meaning “song”. We speak toward song. Except I didn’t any more, according to Zeitels.
“You’re behaving through a veil of monotone,” he went on. “When you talk, you can’t express emotion properly. You can’t change pitch, can’t get loud, can’t do the normal things that a voice does to express how you feel.”