BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Speaking of which ...

This is another of those fascinating volumes that found its way into my library due to the serendipity of the dollar store book section. As is often the case with my “dollar store finds”, this was unlikely to have been something that I would have picked up “at retail”, but for a buck, the topic was interesting enough to get it into my shopping cart. As it was, it sat in my to-be-read stacks for nearly four years before I got around to plowing into it.

If I had one caveat to toss out up front about Anne Karpf's The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are is that it is very British. Karpf is an English journalist and BBC broadcaster (and author and sociologist and university professor), and a lot of this has that very prominently ingrained in terms of descriptions (how many Americans would describe a vocal pattern as “posh”, for instance) and references (lots of TV and radio programs I'd never heard of). To be fair, this is no doubt how the rest of the world feels when hitting a U.S. book that's rife with cultural references, but it stood out enough that it occasionally was “an issue” with how I was absorbing the info.

Also, for being a book that I quite enjoyed, it ended up with nearly no little slips of paper for places that I felt I needed to return to, either for choice bits for this review, or for “future reference”, which is odd … especially given that this is not a “light read”, for a book with 300 pages of text, The Human Voice carries an additional 80 pages of notes (in a considerably smaller font size than the text) – so you would think that there would be notable factoids that I'd have marked.

To be honest, there's a certain obsession here … as though this topic was one that has been a long-time preoccupation of the author. There's a breadth to the survey that's almost more than most folks would want to know, but all presented clearly and significantly annotated.

Because I don't have specific notes to pull from here, I'm going to fall back on a crutch that I feel I use too frequently, but which does give the reader at least the “30,000ft view” of the scope of the work … breaking it down by chapter headings. This is in three (untitled) sections:
  1. What the Voice Can Tell Us

  2. How the Voice Achieves its Range and Power

  3. How We Colour Our Voices with Pitch, Volume, and Tempo

  4. What Makes the Voice Distinctly Human

  5. The Impact of the Mother's Voice (even in the Womb)

  6. Mothertalk: the Melody of Intimacy

  7. The Emergence of the Baby's Voice

  1. Do I Really Sound Like That?

  2. How Our Emotions Shape the Sounds We Make (and Other People Hear Them)

  3. Male and Female Voices: Stereotyped or Different?

  4. How Men and Women's Voices Are Changing

  5. Cultural Differences in the Voice

  1. From Oral to Literate Society

  2. The Public Voice

  3. How Technology Has Transformed the Voice

  4. Voiceprints and Voice Theft

  5. How People and Corporations are Trying to Change the Voice
Obviously, that's a LOT of info that Karpf has condensed here. Again, I'm guessing most folks have not even read moderately on the subject of the voice, and assorted research that deals with it, so the book is pretty much a non-stop flow of “wow … who knew?” moments. Some examples from early on: Newborns prefer to hear their mother's voice filtered in the way that it would have sounded to them in the womb.{Babies} can pick out their mother's voice from other voices well before they're able to distinguish her face from other faces. … although by age 4 most have switched to visual modes. Also, whereas males will talk “baby talk” to children under 4, by the time they're 5 most males will use “adult speech” in addressing children, while females still maintain the specialized forms.

There are fascinating elements of how vocalization has changed through global communication. There is a “vocal fashion” called HRT – the “high rising terminal” - “in which the intonation of questions is applied to statements” that “seems to have begun in New Zealand, moved over to Australia, migrated to American teenagers (especially female), and eventually colonized Europe” … however, its spread (particularly to non-teens) is likely to limit its lifespan, as it has lost its “cool” factor. The author also deals with issues raised with Indian call centers … it appears that callers from the UK have even a worse reaction to heavy accents than their US counterparts … but as one call center trainer notes: “It is very challenging to unlearn their natural manner of speech.”.

There's a good deal about how TV presenters and politicians have had to concentrate on adapting their voice for optimal effect. While some of the cases here (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, etc.) are familiar enough to be useful examples for the US reader, there are a lot of names, evidently well known to the UK audience, that I certainly had no reference point to go on. However, I'm guessing the “cultural differences” here only become an issue in 15% or so of the book, so, given the massive amount of material here, that's not a particular problem over-all. There is a lot of psychological stuff here too, such as: The voice both reflects and mediates our relationship with the outside world, and can be used to express attitudes and feelings that would be derided or dangerous if articulated through words.

The Human Voice does still seem to be in print, with the hardcover being a “bargain price” and less than a third what they're asking for the paperback (!). One would think, given that this has gone out to the dollar stores, that there'd be cheap copies via the new/used vendors, but not so much that you'd be saving a lot with the added shipping in that channel. If you have any interest in the voice, I'd say this is a good bet … it's a fascinating collection of info on the subject.

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Tags: book review
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