A lucid look at the science behind human communication.
Consider a smartly constructed computer that read every book in the world. Even if it did, writes Cox (Acoustic Engineering/Univ. of Salford; The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World, 2014), “its knowledge would be incomplete,” for the computer would lack a world of cultural context. It would probably not be able to understand most allusions, would certainly not be able to fill in the blanks of the things that human storytellers leave out of their tales, might not parse plays on words, and so forth. That we human speakers and listeners are able to do all these things points to the phenomenal amount of brainpower that underlies communication. The author examines the evolution of the human vocal tract, noting that standing upright lengthened it to produce a great variety of sounds—and adding that there are distinct differences in the pronunciation of short and tall people in pronouncing words such as bit/bet because of vocal tract length, differences that we adjust for without knowing that we’re doing so: “the listener subconsciously estimates how long the vocal tract of the speaker is.” Just so, speech impediments such as hesitation or stuttering speak to a huge amount of neural processing and misprocessing as well as the implication of genetics, such as the mutation of “FOXP2 on chromosome 7,” in making pronunciation difficult for one unfortunate British family. Neural processing, too, makes it possible for us to judge the “authenticity” of a speaker who is reporting some emotion—an authenticity that is too often faked, whether by a politician or a skilled actor. The greatest takeaway from the book is the welcome thought that our best moments as human communicators are in ordinary conversations, “quotidian activity that allows knowledge about how to survive and thrive to be passed between us.”
There’s lots to ponder in Cox’s geekily entertaining exploration of how we acquire our voices and understand those of others.