Tuesday 22 August 2000

The Philosophy of Speech (1928)

Originally printed in The Philosopher, Volume V, 1928


Lylie Pragnell

(1999) The Editor adds:

This is an interesting article, reflecting certainly the religious presumptions of the Philosophical Society, but also the breadth of its understanding of the study of Philosophy. Readers may disparage elements as mere platitude, but the article contains some thought-provoking elements, (which is more than so much contemporary analytical philosophy can boast) and that is surely reason enough to republish it here.

Sanskrit, which has been aptly described as "the perfectly constructed speech dedicated to literary and religious purposes," is the language of song These ancient peoples went deeply into the matter: while they sang their praise songs they wanted to understand exactly how the voice produced song, and they studied the breath in a way which had never before been attempted, and certainly has never since been excelled They thought of it as "the breath of life," not merely as a supply of oxygen to the tissues, but as a direct means of real inspiration and the key to that deeper life which all so much long for. ;

The Bible of the Hebrews is a poem, and its accents and pause forms all show how these people sang their way through life. They knew that the Spirit of Song banishes all depression, uplifts us, spreading joy and gladness to both those who sing and those who hear. And now as then, to sing aloud and praise the Lord as He has commanded, is not only a duty, but is also of great and incalculable benefit to both body and mind. For the Voice of Song and of Speech are very closely allied - speech being governed by the same laws of vocal utterance as song, only at a slower rate of vibratory motion

To accentuate speech, making it rhythmic, and to intone, is the beginning of all song thought; and to speak well is a gift worth cultivation. The Greeks used a word to express an Untold Power, and St. John used the Logos as the only fit title for the great and Holy God-"a Word" It follows the old Hebrew idea of the ruahk - the Spirit of Breath - The Voice.

Old Hebrew had no vowels in the written text: the pronunciation being traditional for many centuries. Not until the sixth century of our era was any attempt made to,bring in a vowel system, and then it became possible for anyone to pronounce Hebrew, and to read the Bible in the original tongue. But the Greeks and also the much older Sanskrit both had a vowel system. The latter provided some thirteen vowels, but, as with us, many of them had several different sounds, and the Hebrew vocalisation improved on this. For, except for the kaumets, which can be either long aw as in "law," or short o, as in "lot," every vowel has its own particular and allotted sound. And the great beauty of that ancient tongue may perhaps be found in fullest perfection in the Songs of the Psalms.

Revelation of character and development is often portrayed by a voice. "A rough and harsh voice has something repulsive in it. I never have confidence in people with such voices," says Bach. And again: "In the human voice we have before us the most perfect and, in fact, the most wonderful of all instruments . . . for all other instruments are but imitations of the human voice and even inferior to it, as they are mere products of human ingenuity, whilst in the voice we possess the Divine gift; so that as Schubert aptly says, "Song is seated on the throne as King, and all the instruments bow down before it as its vassals."

"There is nothing in our composition either purely immaterial or purely spiritual," says Montaigne, and perhaps of all things this can be most truly said of the duality of the human voice. "It is a self-conscious entity whose powers are so great as to be almost illimitable when governed by the wise ones." For a sound-wave may carry with it all that springs up from the soul, then emanating outwards from the personality takes its place in the universal etheric atmosphere.

Wireless Telephony has taught us that the spoken word lives. All around us are those wonderful sound-waves waiting to be electrically transformed into speech itself. Not lost but living words. It is a grand philosophy-this ever-present speech, making us careful of what we say, and then, by the natural law, making us equally careful of what we think-for speech and thought go hand in hand. These rhythmic waves of sound may be used to create and increase the strength and power, of goodness, and to ameliorate and improve our social, moral and religious condition. For Voice - Sound - when concentrated as in united, faithful prayer might be made a force so powerful as to overcome mountains and make miracles of daily occurrence.

It was said of Cardinal Newman that the tones of his voice seemed as if they were something more than his own. The Divine effulgence flowed upwards into them, and all that was spoken sounded like a fine strain of unearthly music.

There is a divine philosophy in a Voice! A profundity - a graciousness - and above all a universality! For, "all human" beings are endowed with voices. A although no one voice sounds like another, and although innumerable minor differences occur in the structure of the vocal organs - all have the same number of vocal chords and of muscles and cartilages; and this uniformly equal formation of all larynxes might afford a sufficient ground for tracing all the human races back to one common origin." Alexander Von Humboldt asserts the unity of the human race and says that, making with the laryngoscope an examination of the larynxes of the Hindoos, Zulus, Chinese, Japanese and Negroes, they were all found to be entirely equal to that of the European in form and structure.

Every person then possesses in his vocal organs a marvellous instrument, which differentiates the human from the animal, and links up man with the Divine. For man was only dry bones until God put breath (the vocal dynamo) into him. Then, he became more like unto the Creator, having the power of spirit utterance - a power even yet unfathomed and possibly unfathomable, for the profundity and depth are known only unto Him who commanded "Come from the four winds, O breath."

lt is said that a well-modulated voice testifies to a strain of good blood in the speaker's ancestry. It is the most distinguishing mark - the index - of a refined and cultivated mind. The instant the tone of a man's voice is heard, he is estimated, set down, and thereafter known by that first involuntary proclamation. The voice is one of the greatest revealers of a man's inmost nature. There you may observe his strength or weakness of character, the peculiarities of his temperament, the lack of the possession of self confidence, and the hundred-and-one disclosures of mind and heart.

The whisper of William Pitt the younger, could be heard in the most remote parts of the House of Commons. At the age of twenty-one, his wonderful, speaking voice really ruled the British nation, and of Achilles it is said, that he put the Trojans to flight by the power of his thundering voice alone.

Thus it is worth while to possess voices full of resonating power and beauty, so that by our philosophically calm and peaceful utterances we may hope to help alter the electric tendency and tremendous nervous rush of the age, which alas! has rushed into our voices also, and greatly increased the many grievous nerve and speech troubles."

Therefore we say, "God mend our voices."

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