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Speaking power to truth – ‘This Is the Voice’

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How much thought have you given to your voice?

Not the way it sounds, mind you. We’re not talking about the words that you might say or the notes that you might sing, but rather the actual voice itself. The physiological and neurological underpinnings of how we as human beings are able to harness its many complexities.

If you’re at all curious, then you desperately need to sit down with John Colapinto’s “This Is the Voice” (Simon & Schuster, $28). It is a deeply researched and incredibly informative plunge into what proves to be a surprisingly robust topic, one that digs into not just the nuts and bolts of how our voice works, but some ideas about WHY it works the way it does.

This unapologetically wonky book is rife with fascinating facts about the origins of human voice, packed with interviews that address the topic from all angles. Through delving into the physical, emotional and cultural connotations of voice, Colapinto illustrates just how vital a part the voice plays in our world – who we were, who we are and who we may yet become.

The fundamental idea that this book explores is a simple, yet far-reaching one. Basically, Colapinto argues that the ability to speak – not just to make sounds, but to SPEAK – has been the key to humankind’s evolutionary journey to the top of the heap. That ability to communicate concisely and flexibly is what truly separated us from the pack and allowed for the many developments that led us to our current status.

And it all started with a song. Kind of.

Colapinto’s fascination with the voice started when he suffered an injury to his own. Specifically, he was the singer in a band and he overdid. When he tried to push through, his condition worsened. By the time he finally went to see a doctor, years later, the damage was done – a node on his vocal cords that could only (maybe) be fixed via a risky surgery. What followed was the deepest of deep dives, a wide-ranging and sprawling investigation of the voice from a variety of angles.

We learn about the lungfish, whose move from the sea to the land proved to be the kickstart of the development of the larynx. We learn the differences between the vocal apparatuses of other primates and our own. We’re given insight into great debates – scientific debates driven by linguists like Noam Chomsky in the middle of the 20th century and the famed Lincoln-Douglas political debates from a century earlier. We meet a reclusive Amazonia tribe whose language helps us understand the inherent musicality of our words. We learn about regional accents and vocal fry. And we’re part of a conversation about the weaponization of the voice by demagogues, including their ability to command and control through rhetorical tone and tricks.

Not to mention the fact that a person’s voice can communicate far more than the content of their words – not just meaning, but gender, class, mood and so much more.

Now, all of this information could have become overwhelming – there’s a lot here. But rather than succumbing to the granular, Colapinto manages to strike the balance between informational conveyance and entertaining engagement. There’s a conversational quality to “This Is the Voice” that makes connecting to the work very easy, even as we venture into heady notions like evolutionary biology and Universal Grammar; the layman is never lost, as sometimes happens when science writers relegate craft to the back burner.

Again – this is all intended to show that our voice is what allowed us to build and maintain the civilization in which we live. It’s a heady concept, this notion that our voice is the reason we are where we are as a species. And yet … Colapinto certainly puts forward a strong argument. It makes sense that an intricately-controlled, scalable medium of communication would be an advantage, but for so many of us – certainly for myself – the voice is something that we take for granted. As a performer, someone who relies heavily on the quality of my voice, it’s wild to think that I’ve never given much consideration to its wider importance.

“This Is the Voice” is a prime example of quality popular science, striking that ideal balance between informative and entertaining. It embraces the wide-ranging aspects of its subject matter, digging in wherever necessary and capturing the reader’s curiosity. But it’s also an engaging read, thoughtful and funny and finely crafted. Books that accomplish this combination are few and far between, but John Colapinto has definitely written one that does just that.

“The human voice is the organ of the soul.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 February 2021 08:38

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