[Works of art throughout this post – altered books and dioramas – are by Dawn Morehead] This one is called The Mad Tea Party.
I’m often stopped in my tracks by a bit of overheard conversation in English – something ordinary, something that has a specific way of being spoken aloud. “You’ve gotta be kidding.” We all know just how that sentence sounds, right?
“I’ll never forget it.”
“He ought to be ashamed.”
“What are you gonna do?”
All the above are turns of phrase that native English speakers probably hear in their heads (reading them right now, for example) exactly as they are said aloud. Robert Frost called this “sentence sound” (link below) – and he described it as what you hear when someone across a field is talking to you and you can’t really catch the sense of it, but you can hear the music of it. Accusatory, inquisitive, sorrowful – sentences have a sound. How a sentence sounds – a good tool for writers.
My interest in the music of a language was sparked again recently by four things. First, I’ve been hearing (unfortunately) a lot of Ukrainian lately – a language I don’t know one word of. It’s being translated by reporters and/or their assistants on the scene of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. I can hear the music of it, at least the music of the sorrow or the anger affecting the way it’s said. Without understanding it, I understand it tonally.
Second, the documentary made about Michael Peterson’s trial for murder (The Staircase) shows a test jury listening to the expert testimony of Henry Lee, a forensic scientist well-known for his familiarity with blood evidence. His arguments about Peterson’s innocence were solid and convincing, or so the defense team thought, but the test jurists said they simply couldn’t understand him, “not a word he said.” These were Southerners, perhaps not from towns of tremendous cultural diversity, maybe not used to hearing many people whose first language was not English. It’s true that sometimes your ability to be understood in a learned language depends on your command of its sound qualities – the flow of it, and the emphasis on certain syllables, for example. Knowing the vocabulary of a language is one thing, knowing its music is another. I found Henry Lee easy to understand; but the test jury heard gibberish. To be fair, people who from the United Kingdom might not understand the way it’s spoken in the Deep South. I’m including a link below to Eudora Welty reading her own short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Talk about musical English! But I’m sure some people who have learned “proper” English as a second language would not understand her, “not a single word.”
Third, I’ve been listening to birds while I’m out in the garden. They have a musical language I don’t understand…but I have fun trying to guess. I’m confident most of the crows are scolding me.
[A Field Guide to Birds / Dawn Morehead]
Fourth, in terms of not being able to make sense of what you’re hearing, I watched a damaged library copy of a movie I’ve seen before, A Month in the Country, inspired by the novel of the same name by J. L. Carr. The sound on the library DVD was garbled to the point of unintelligibility; I should have given up and taken it back to the library. But I found it fascinating to hear whole scenes in English – lines and lines of dialogue – where all I could make out, other than an occasional word, was the basic cadence, the rising and falling of it, the music of it. Like those test jurists I mentioned, or like Frost listening to his neighbor across a field, I wasn’t understanding anything, I couldn’t really make out the sense of it. As adults, we don’t get to experience that very often in our own native tongue. Maybe I’m easily thrilled, since I found it thrilling. And I love nonsense in general. “This is what English sounds like to someone who doesn’t speak it,” I thought as I watched the movie.
In the links this time around, I’m including one site where a singer is pretending to sing in English. You feel as if, with more careful attention, you might be on the edge of understanding it. But you can’t, because the singer is re-creating just the music of how English sounds, not the vocabulary. The vocabulary is gibberish.
- Robert Frost on “the sound of sense” and “sentence sounds,” from a letter he wrote to John Bartlett in 1913. Sometimes I imagine Robert Frost reciting a slightly crusty version of Jabberwocky.
- Here’s an interesting article about how Russia has dealt with the Ukrainian language.
- In 1970, Adriano Celentano released a song that was 99% gibberish, in which he tried to approximate the sound of English. Here it is. Charlie Chaplin does a fair job of going the opposite direction, singing a song in nonsense French-Italian.
- Writers who can create a voice that sounds authentically like spoken English – all the cadences, the tonal qualities, the flow, plus all the sense of it, are few and far between. Hemingway gets cited. His sentences are short, clean, and clear. But my favorite is Eudora Welty. You do have to attune your ear to the way she speaks it, with her soft Mississippi drawl, the same way you do with the English in Downton Abbey. For a real challenge, try the English spoken in Danny Boyles’s film, Trainspotting! Here is Welty reading her wonderful short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.”
- Here’s how teaching herself to write in a new language changed Jhumpa Lahiri’s voice.
- A great collection of children’s book illustrators form the latest exhibit (“Generations”) at the R. Michelson Gallery.
- And speaking of children’s books, here is the 2022 list of award winners from Bank Street School of Education. Congratulations to them. Lots of poetry books included, hurrah!
- Throughout this post, I’ve included the photos of the work of Dawn Morehead – she does amazing things with altered books. You can find more here.
- One last treat in terms of turning the music of our language (book pages) into beautiful objects. Here are three samples, and here’s the link:
Last minute addition: Don’t want you to miss this interesting article from The Smithsonian about ways in which bird song resembles human speech. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/do-birds-have-language-180979629/