Beyond words: what you're saying with growls, um, ahs and mms

Amanda Smith: It's through language—the sounds that you make with your mouth, with your tongue, your teeth, vocal cords, and lungs—that we convey meaning to each other. But there's a whole range of noises we make that are not words. They still communicate meaning, though; things like sighs, mmms, ah-hums, coughs...

Hello, I'm Amanda Smith, and this is The Body Sphere.

Steven Connor is the author of Beyond Words. This is a book that explores these sorts of noises that we communicate with. He's also Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, and it's from Cambridge that he joins us.

Now, first of all, Steve, tell me what brought you to this subject?

Steven Connor: Well, a long time ago I was writing a book about the history of ventriloquism. And in order to get what people understood by the voice, I was reading Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who has a section on the voice in a book about the soul. And Aristotle makes this rather odd remark there, that just sort of snagged my attention and hung around for years. And it's this: he says, 'What we call a voice is the sound made by a creature that has soul.' 'But,' he then says, 'not all of the sounds made by creatures with soul themselves have soul in them.' And he gives us an example of this soul-less sound made in the voice—a cough.

And the interesting thing about it is that it is completely false, of course, because coughs are not just a sort of animal noise, they can be, but they're actually highly distinctive. There's a whole range of very expressive coughs. And in fact I've got a sort of unconsciously expressive cough. I have a way, I've realised, of clearing my throat (where I'm just clearing my throat) which sounds to people rather slyly insinuating. So I [coughs] and people feel rather sort of put on the spot and reproved. So I have to be careful about my own cough.

So that was the beginning of it. As a matter of fact I wanted to call the book in which I write about these things 'Aristotle's Cough'.

And then I thought, well, what about all the other things that are sort of on the borderline between being just noisiness, not part of language at all, and yet somehow perform many of the functions of the things we think of as language.

Amanda Smith: Well, are we always inclined to try to form meaning out of sounds?

Steven Connor: I think we are. Because after all, all expressive sound, all language is in fact just noise. And that's one of the reasons why words for other peoples, often quite insultingly the names of other peoples, are often names for a sort of noise that they seem to be making. The best example is the word 'Hottentots', which Dutch settlers in the Cape region of South Africa who heard the Khoisan people, who of course have lots of clicks in their speech, heard them as a sort of stuttering.And they said they were 'Hottentots' because they sounded as though they couldn't quite get their words out. The word 'barbarian' has a rather similar…

Amanda Smith: Yes, that’s ho barbaros, isn't it, from Greek?

Steven Connor: Yeah. But it simply means people who make the sound 'bar-bar-bar-bar-bar…' rather than proper words. So in a way all…I mean, of course for children all language begins in just noise, in just playing around making sounds. So in a certain sense you could say that noisiness is the sort of well into which language dips in order to bring out meaning. It's a sort of permanent standing reservoir of possibilities.

Amanda Smith: Well there's a phrase you use in turning your attention to, as you say, 'the guttural, the fricative, the sibilant, the dental' and you call it 'a dream theatre of the mouth.' Can you say more about this dream theatre of the mouth?

Steven Connor: Yes, I was quite pleased with that phrase. That was another title I proposed. But here's what I mean by that. The mouth is an immensely important organ for human beings: when we begin our lives it's more or less the only part of us that is nearly as skilled in our muscular control over it as it will ever be; unlike the rest of our bodies, because babies just necessarily have to be very, very skilled oralists. Not at speaking, although sound-making is also an important part of an infant human's life.

So it's as it were the first, most versatile part of us and remains so. And as such, the mouth becomes both the scene and the producer of kinds of what one must call bodily fantasies—the idea that you might, when you're speaking, be kind of performing actions as though with some imaginary substance or 'stuff' that's in your mouth. I think the reason for this is that among the many ways in which the mouth in human beings is very versatile is that it's employed for these two things that can't be done at the same time, namely breathing, and therefore speaking; and also eating. As a matter of fact we have a very particular kind of sound, an expressive sound, that comes about when those two things interfere with each other, namely hiccupping.

But the fact of that overlap I think is very important for our personal and our cultural histories because it means that we come to think of speaking as a kind of chewing. We talk about chewing the fat, we talk about mulling things over. We may refer to people rolling syllables round in their mouths. And that gives us a sense that we're not only producing these noises through blowing air out, basically, and modifying the passage of the air, we're also manipulating a substance, and doing it often quite expressively and symbolically, as though to mimic certain actions that we may wish to be performing in the world.

In violent utterance, for example, we very often seem to be enacting a grinding or a slicing or a chopping or a rasping or something that we would maybe want to do perhaps to the subject of our speech, perhaps to somebody else. But we're kind of performing it as though the mouth were a pair of hands, somehow, and we were literally manipulating objects.

So this means that the mouth has to become a sort of theatre in which all kinds of scenes can be imagined…and here's the complicated thing, in which the mouth itself is transformed. It becomes a sort of place of alchemy where you can kind of brew up different sorts of things.

Amanda Smith: Mmm…who knew?

Let's talk about the sound you make when your mouth is closed, and that's 'mmm'. Such a nice sound, isn't it?

Steven Connor: It's lovely. And of course it's lovely because in many languages, not absolutely all but in a lot of languages it signifies softness, comfort, desirability, pleasure, satisfaction. And there may be just a simple reason for this. It was suggested by the Czech linguist Roman Jakobson. He observed that when your mouth is completely full, as it were with some pleasurable substance, as with a suckling baby, the only sound that you can make is the sound that comes through your nose. And as a matter of fact although we think of the sound 'mmm' as having to do with the closed lips, in fact of course it's a nasal sound because that's the only place the sound can get out of when you've closed your mouth. And that's the only noise that you can make if you are clamped on to the mother's breast. For that reason it may be, says Jakobson, that the letter M has a particular association with pleasure and satisfaction, but also with motherhood and maternity. This is very widespread, not completely universal in languages, but it's very widespread that words for 'mother' do actually incorporate what's called the bilabial nasal, this 'mmm' sound.

Amanda Smith: There's also the 'mmm' that means yes, that we all use to keep the conversation going, you know, 'mmm' says 'I'm listening', 'I'm interested.' But actually broadcasters have to train themselves out of that, because while it might be reassuring to you if I keep going 'mmm', especially cos we're on opposite sides of the world and can't see each other, it's very annoying for those listening. It becomes kind of like a verbal tic. So as a broadcaster you have to actively train yourself not to 'mmm.'

Steven Connor: That's completely right. And it's interesting how hard it is to do that. You really have to train yourself, because we are so used to those rhythms. People who get those rhythms wrong can be very disturbing to talk to, who either don't give you that little bit of encouragement…I think of it as a kind of activating glue, a sort of energising glue that keeps things going. Sometimes you will find yourself going 'mmm' just at the point when somebody may be hesitating as though to say, 'It's all right, have a bit more assurance, you can keep going.'

And I think there is a sort of symbolism that we unconsciously recognise and deploy. There's a sort of expressive contrast between the open and the closed. And of course you close your mouth when you say, 'mmm' and you're really saying 'yes', you're saying 'mmm', 'mmm', 'mmm'. When you don't want to say yes, when you want to say 'yes, but', you may say 'ah…eh' and then the two are put together in a locution like 'a-hum'. So you sort of open a possibility and then you close it. So the closed mouth gives a sort of continuity, a smoothness. The 'ah' opens up a space and potentially suggests a bifurcation in the flow of the conversation.

All of this is bound up with the fact that for human beings speaking is never a singular activity. There's always an implied interlocutor and we're always at work together to create this sort of imaginary substance which is a conversation.

Amanda Smith: And also the point you're making is that all sorts of inchoate sounds we make that we don't call words can be so eloquent, whereas words can be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Steven Connor: Yup. And actually what we mean by good speakers, what we mean by people whose voices are pleasurable to listen to, I think we mean by that people who have a strong sense of the expressive possibilities of pure noise. One of the things I've noticed a lot is an increase in what linguists call the creaky voice, and I'm not very good at the creaky voice but young girls are really…

Amanda Smith: Oh, this is the vocal fry…

Steven Connor: And there's a kind of an incipient growl. In America it's known as the Californian creak, and it's becoming very, very widespread. And I think it's used to express enthusiasm, intimacy. It's a very friendly sound though a very odd sound when you realise actually what is being done, which is in a certain sense to make the sound rougher, more growly, more rasping. And most people will be very surprised to be told that they're doing this, but they also understand the sort of inclusiveness that it may involve.

So being alive to and able to work with and enjoy the sort of melody of pure noisiness, the things that are going on when you're not saying a word, when you're saying, 'mmm…' and just thinking of how you can make that as big a curve as possible, going 'mmm…' is a really important part of what we understand by expressive speech, and not at all what we tend to tell ourselves. We tend to say, ah well, a good and expressive, harmonious speaker is somebody who is clear, who is distinct, who doesn't allow their words to be overlaid by unnecessary sounds. But in fact it's the unnecessary overlays that give all of our speech all of its richness and suggestiveness.

Amanda Smith: On air and online at RN, you're listening to The Body Sphere, with Amanda Smith, in conversation with Steven Connor. He's the author of Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalisations. And Steve, I feel we really ought to be having this conversation in a series of non-verbal utterances, huh?

Steven Connor: [Laughs] Mmm...

Amanda Smith: Well, a sort of indistinct mingling of voices is a 'patter', isn't it. That's also the sort of fast talk of someone who's spruiking a sales pitch and running words together.

Steven Connor: Yes.

Amanda Smith: Now, patter is an example of how the plosive P is often used?

Steven Connor: It is. Patter, people seem fairly convinced, is derived from or at least converges with a rather surprising sacred origin in the Paternoster, the 'Our Father'. It's bound up with the history of sectarianism and the Reformation and anti-Catholicism, because it was popularly supposed that pattering, that particular kind of prayer under your breath, maybe not paying very much attention to the words at all, was associated with Catholics. So pattering gets associated with that sort of rapid under-your-breath muttering, not really quite being there.

But it joins a whole pattern in English and in many other languages too in which… First of all, plosives, P-sounds are sounds that don't have any vowel, any voice in them—there's nothing of the larynx involved in a plosive, though it might be accompanied or amplified with the larynx—it's just a pop, it's just a little frontal cough. It's a cough of the lips or something, a plosive. And if that's combined with a T, no particular reason why it should be a double T, not just in words like patter but in compounds like pitter-patter or prattling or spluttering or battering…one of the things I love about these kinds of sounds is that everybody is an expert in them. Everybody knows that there are families of sounds, the meanings of which you may not quite know but you sort of can guess. The first time you hear that somebody is blotto you know that that's got something to do with not being able to speak (because you're drunk), that there's something of the indistinct language slightly falling apart. And yet language is so rich and so precise in its ways of signifying these sorts of imprecision.

One of my favourite embodiments of this is a medieval devil who was given the name Titivillus. And it was the job of this devil, Titivillus, to go around and collect mispronunciations, blunders in speech of preachers. Although later on it was also suggested that he would gather up titterings and whisperings in among the inattentive congregations. And his job was to collect a thousand of these a day in a big sack and carry them off to Satan. And the Day of Judgment, all of your misspeakings would be laid against you. But I rather liked him, because you know, his name is what he does. He struck me as a rather friendly sort of chap, Titivillus.

Amanda Smith: Now, what you're saying does suggest that there are kind of hardwired meanings contained in certain sounds that then get used repeatedly in words.

Steven Connor: Yeah. It is really difficult for us not to feel that, and in a way I do believe it. I know that it cannot be right. I know…

Amanda Smith: Why can it not be right?

Steven Connor: Well, it's not right because if it were really true that these meanings were hardwired, then we could never use those sounds in alternative senses as we often do. And these sounds would perform the same function in all languages and they just don't. Even very primal sounds like 'mmm'…it's not universal that mothers are named with M-sounds. And there is nothing pathological about the languages of the peoples who don't do that. What there is, though, is a very profound kind of patterning, a patterning that we recognise and, what is more, actually gets to be formative of language. So words get formed by a sort of chance procedure, but then they sort of cluster because we feel that we want words to belong to families, and without quite articulating what these noises mean, we have an implicit and actually quite subtle understanding of them.

So an example that I thought about quite a lot is sounds that we call guttural, sounds made in the back of the throat. Sounds made in that part of the mouth are old sounds in English. The word night in English used to be pronounced 'neecht'. So that GH in the middle used to be pronounced, and what tends to happen actually in all languages is that those guttural sounds, those back of the throat sounds, tend to move forwards in the mouth, first of all to be smoothed out into a simple H and then maybe just to vanish, as in night, where the spelling preserves the sound that is no longer actually audible.

And we sort of have an understanding that there's something dark, early, maybe rather archaic, maybe a little bit uncivilised or barbaric about those sounds. And that may also just be because there are quite a lot of animal sounds, growling sounds in particular, that involve that performance in the mouth. So there is no particular reason why these sorts of sounds might have these associations but language tends to reinforce these patterns, and that's what we like.

Amanda Smith: You mentioned the guttural growl, and of course there are a whole raft of words that start with GR that sort of relate to that in a way. And I guess what you're saying is we've just come to collect them. So grizzly, grotty, gruesome, grumbling, groaning.

Steven Connor: Yes, exactly. There's a wonderful New Yorker cartoon which bears this out. There are two tigers talking to each other and one says, 'Growl, grim, grizzly…what other good words are there with GR?' And it doesn't really take very many of these to form a pattern. One of the most intriguing ones, which has been noticed by linguists for 500 years or so in English is that words beginning or involving GL seem to have something to do with light or luminousness. Glitter, glimmer…

Amanda Smith: Glint, gleam…glow.

Steven Connor: Even a word like gloaming, which actually means the absence of light. It means twilight. But before I knew what gloaming was I assumed it was a certain kind of glowingness—which of course it is, there is a certain subdued glow in twilight. But it's precisely because of the work of the GL makes you think there's a kind of glow in gloaming (as a matter of fact that's not the origin at all). And quite a high proportion of all the words in English that begin GL actually have something to do with light. I think then those sorts of choices get forced upon us, like the conjurer forcing a card upon us where we think we're just choosing at random, but in fact there is a sort of pressure of precedent that language forces upon us.

Now, you will never get a poet to agree with this. Pretty much all poets have a deep, deep belief that there are kind of essential, archetypal meanings associated with particular sounds. And in a way we all believe this. We all believe this because we act out our belief in it in our speaking. Maybe that's what our speaking somehow is, it's a shared resource. And yet it is magical thinking because actually language can be made of any sound, and languages across the world are made of any sounds.

Amanda Smith: There's another point you make that I'm hoping you'll tease out. It's that the mouth is “a place of traffic and rendezvous”.

Steven Connor: Yes, well, it's because…now, this is going to sound bizarre but I hope everyone will understand instantly what I'm saying by this. The mouth is actually a kind of ear. Not literally, but it's as though somehow our mouths were sensitive to…perhaps one can say they're a sort of microphone because they're so sensitive to what we're hearing. Partly because we can't really hear our own speech very precisely. It's only in the era of tape recorded sound which more or less means after the Second World War that people have routinely come to have the experience of hearing themselves. And even…I mean, no one feels quite comfortable with that; no-one quite believes, even broadcasters who hear their own voices a lot…

Amanda Smith: No one likes the sound of their own voice.

Steven Connor: No one really likes it but you sort of get used to it. But it's not like that voice you hear in your head, coming through the bones of your skull. So the voice that other people hear—in a way your voice is like your face; you never see your face as it actually is, and you never hear your voice quite as people hear it. That's why if you look at people's facial expression if they hear their voice and they kind of scrunch up their face, as though to say, 'That's not my voice.' This would be the face that went with a voice like that.

And very surprisingly the era of recording can also reveal other odd effects that perhaps we might never have been able to pick up previously. When I hear myself speak in later life I can hear my mother. I don't think I spoke like my mother when I was younger, but certainly there are little sounds that I can hear in my own voice when it's played back to me, that are a sort of memorial archive of just inflections, just a particular curve or contour of the voice that might come from my mother. And these things oddly can rise to the surface at different times in your life, just as when you look at yourself in a photograph you can think, 'Good heavens, I now look exactly like my Uncle Charlie!'

Amanda Smith: And Steven Connor, as well as looking like his Uncle Charlie and sounding like his mother, is professor of English at Cambridge University and the author of Beyond Words. It's not an easy read (or at least I didn't find it so) but really fascinating to grapple with. GRRRR.


© Australian Broadcasting Corporation