Wednesday, April 10, 2013

'B' is for . . .

I wonder if you picked up a fascinating item on the radio yesterday . . . the research into gelada monkeys and the source of speech.
It appears that anyone wishing to witness the origin of our modern day cacophony, should go to the Highlands of Ethiopia and study the gelada.

These talented monkeys, according to research by Dr. Thore Bergman, from the University of Michigan, " . . . make vocalisations that have some speech-like properties - it's the first time that that has been shown in a non-human primate."
He goes on to say that their sound, a cross between a yodel and a baby's gurgle, could have provided inspiration for our ancient grunting forebears.
Have we the geladas to thank for the fact that you and I, and everyone else, can now communicate?  I wonder.

Communication is something we all too easily take for granted.
If you've a moment to spare, could we share some thoughts on this fascinating subject?

It's hard to realise that once, not so very many centuries ago, we could only communicate with those within earshot.  It was only when Pandora's box was thrown open, when man devised the written word, that life was changed . . . it would never be the same again.
Now, as I sit here and write to you, we have at our disposal a mind-boggling variety of communication techniques . . .  facilities linking every region of the planet in an all-pervasive, unsleeping, inter-connecting web.
Full understanding may still trouble us.  Communication, however, is no longer a problem.

As I'm sure you'd agree, this need to communicate is one of mankind's dominant emotions.
After the bodily needs for air, food and water, surely the need to reach out, the need to make contact, is a basic stimulus for most of us?

And we've come a long way from the gelada monkeys in our quest for closer communication.  Our distant ancestors could, at first, communicate only by grunts.  It was out of the desire to share thoughts and experiences that language evolved.
But, as I've been discovering, the languages that emerged would appear far more subtle than the superficial information they carry.  Communication, surprisingly enough, still seems to be rooted in the grunting eloquence of the gelada.

You'd like proof of this theory?  Fine . . . let's start with the explosive sound of 'B'.
In the English language, consciously or unconsciously, we use the sound 'B' to denote size, strength and power.  When spoken it has an explosive quality that demands attention.  The sound 'P', on the other hand, is slightly apologetic and stuttering. You only have to look at the physical construction of the two letters to see their nature.  Whereas 'B' is buxom and double-barrelled, 'P' is poised prettily on its single stem.

If the sound of your voice won't startle someone in the vicinity, may I recommend that you listen to yourself reading the following optimistic sentence:
"The benevolent banker's bonus boosts the pensioner's petty pittance."
Do you see what I mean?
That sentence opens with all the confidence and bravura of the repeated 'B', and ends with a sequence of rather apologetic 'Ps'.

'P' may be more precise, even more poetic, but it's the bombastic and sometimes bellicose 'B' that gains the banner headlines.
And, just think, the launch of our universe would lose all credibility if it were downgraded from  a 'Big Bang' to a 'Plaintive Pop'!

Let's take another example, the letter 'G'.
It can't be mere coincidence that 'great' and 'good' and 'generous' all begin with 'G'.  It's a sound that resonates in the chest and carries a sense of stability and strength.

And did you notice what I noticed in that last sentence?  'S' was also displaying its inner message.  To 'stability' and 'strength' we can add 'substance' and 'sustainability'.
Mind you, as befits a letter facing in two directions, 'S' has a dual nature.  It also gives us 'shine' and 'sparkle', not to mention 'sly', 'suspicious' and 'suspense'.

Take any letter you like and its hidden message can be found lurking below the surface.  Why is alliteration so powerful?  Because it conveys that hidden message.

I wonder if you've anticipated where this is leading us?
I'm sure you have.  And the irony is that it casts serious doubts on the ability of this letter to communicate.

Communication, it would appear, needs to be voiced if it's to reveal its full meaning.  Words need the power of the voice, the voice needs the subtlety of tone and inflection, added to which we mustn't overlook the potency of the well-timed pause.  All these powerful components, coming together in harmony, render language meaningful.

This knowledge is nothing new. Down the ages, Bards and poets have extolled the power of oratory.
In his poem, "To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence", James Elroy Flecker asks his readers to:

". . . Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face
And never shake you by the hand
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you.  You will understand."

- Flecker, it seems recognised the vital contribution that sound brings to communication.

So . . . can we conclude that it's through listening, not simply emailing or texting, that contact is established?  That it's through the subtleties of sound that our thoughts and feelings are shared?
I think we can.
And would those eloquent gelada and our grunting forebears agree with this conclusion?
Oh, yes   . . . I'm confident they would!