About 20 years ago, the journalist John Colapinto noticed a persistent rasp in his voice, sustained from singing with an amateur rock band. It was the first time he had considered the potential fragility of his voice.
“I had […] never done a proper voice warm-up and had certainly never been informed that the delicate layers of vibratory tissue, muscle, and mucus membrane that make up the vocal cords are as prone to injury as a middle-aged joint,” he writes in This is the Voice.
Similar injuries could happen to seasoned professionals too. Julie Andrews damaged her voice during a Broadway show in 1997, undergoing a series of operations on her vocal cords. Such operations have notable successes: Adele underwent surgery to remove a vocal polyp with the same surgeon who performed Andrews’ operations. But Andrews’ famous bell-clear singing voice would never return.
This book, the result of a decade’s research, assumes a cradle-to-grave structure that’s part biblical — in the beginning was the burpy fartlike noise emitted by a lungfish — and part erudite interdisciplinary seminar that talks the reader through the different stages of language and voice development, drawing on research in neuroscience, linguistics, evolutionary anthropology and cultural studies.
Such an investigation could be quite intimidating to the general reader. But the book is so clearly and enthusiastically told, and Colapinto, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is such an amiable and eloquent guide, that I found myself willingly following him into the intricate worlds of the scientists whose ideas he draws on.
Central to Colapinto’s argument is the contention that the human voice and language developed in tandem, and that physical development “bred a bigger, better, language-capable brain”. In short, spoken language is the key to human neural development, and therefore evolution. He is keen on emphasising the importance of prosody — “the melody of everyday speech” — to both the development of language skills in infancy and how we generally understand the meaning of language.
There’s a sing-song quality to speech that we acquaint ourselves with before we fully understand what’s being said. Babies’ babbling allows them to try to match the sounds that emerge from their own mouths with the sounds they hear around them. Infants are also developing the music of their voices: Charles Darwin noticed that his one-year-old son William, yet to utter his first real word, could use tone of voice to ask simple questions and make exclamations.
The idea that prosody precedes meaning suggests to Colapinto that “the music of speech teaches infants how sentences are put together”. And we carry those lessons with us, employing them in conversation: think of how we raise and lower the pitch, pace and rhythm of our voices when talking to signal, for example, urgency, agreement or disagreement.
One other thing: vocal cords aren’t cords at all, but a valve that evolved to stop water entering the lungs and then came in handy for chopping the flow of air through it into rapid pulses that produce a sound wave.
Theoretically most mammals could talk using this function (“apes make some good consonants”, we’re told), but the intricacy of human communication depends on other factors: the larynx, which descends further in the throat than in other mammals, and the complexity of the human brain, allowing us to sift through and categorise finely nuanced emotional vocal signals.
Colapinto digs up some interesting facts: one of the influences on the scientist Klaus Scherner’s research into the emotional prosody of voice was his listening to the long-running BBC radio soap The Archers. His work has influenced artificial intelligence speech recognition that identifies the emotion in human speech.
Voice reveals the true self, Colapinto insists — it’s an aural fingerprint; an index of personality, gender, sexuality, class — and this theme comes into sharp focus in the later chapters, when he discusses rhetoric in public life, particularly in American politics. He looks at two tendencies in rhetoric: on the one hand, logical, classical oratory, and, on the other, fire and brimstone preaching. He chooses recent embodiments of each tendency: Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Colapinto is good at analysing how adroitly Obama switches between modes of speech — a mix of styles including black English, classical political oratory and in one notable instance, gospel song at a memorial service for nine African Americans killed by a white supremacist.
Colapinto has plenty to say about Trump, whose voice “cut through the air like a cabbie’s horn on Fifth Avenue”. The former president possesses “a notably high voice which sends a signal not of dominance but of submission” that he tries to lower by “pushing out his lips to lower his pitch slightly”, as pre-pubescent boys sometimes do, and raising the volume to overcome his high pitch.
A theme throughout the book is that voice is, whether we desire it or not, “the Self escaping into the open”. Colapinto considers undergoing an operation on his damaged vocal cords, but eventually decides to live with his raspy timbre. His croak is, he decides, “the voice I deserve”.
Non-fiction: This is the Voice by John Colapinto
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, hardcover €25.20; e-book £11.99