Review
Now You’re Talking
The history of voice has a few interesting cross-cultural implications
Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer and the managing editor of MultiLingual. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.
Now You’re Talking: Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial
Intelligence
, By Trevor Cox. Counterpoint Press, September 2018. Hardcover, $26.00.
In Now You’re Talking, professor of acoustic engineering Trevor Cox weaves an engaging yarn for his readers. This is “the story of how speaking and listening evolved, how we each develop these remarkable talents during our childhood, and how human communication is being changed by technology,” as the introduction puts it.
Now You’re Talking: Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial
Intelligence
, By Trevor Cox. Counterpoint Press, September 2018. Hardcover, $26.00.
In Now You’re Talking, professor of acoustic engineering Trevor Cox weaves an engaging yarn for his readers. This is “the story of how speaking and listening evolved, how we each develop these remarkable talents during our childhood, and how human communication is being changed by technology,” as the introduction puts it.
Cox’s history is oriented toward the layperson, and is well-rounded with plenty of takeaways for cross-cultural marketers hidden within the pages of the book. The breakdown of what kinds of vocal rhetoric work most effectively could certainly be useful — quaint as some of it seems; Cox claims, for example, that using carefully-worded plosives in tweets (such as k, p and g) makes them more popular.

The book begins with a discussion on the evolution of the speech mechanism in humans — the physical structures that make talking and listening to conversation possible.

Throughout the book, technology is discussed at some length, from the earliest iterations of the phonograph to AI. Technology, Cox points out, makes speech observable over time. “Sound is naturally ephemeral, but that changed with recording,” he says, showing a 1916 photograph of an ethnologist recording a Piegan man’s speech.

Aside from brief mentions of machine translation, the book does not deal explicitly with localization or translation — except in a certain hyperpersonalized sense. Cox discusses how dialect and accent influences people’s perceptions of the speaker, from how people with head trauma may find themselves suddenly speaking with a “foreign” accent to the chagrin of their neighbors, to his mother’s habit of swearing when she does not want people to perceive her highly-proper British accent as stuck-up.

Onomataopia also gets the cultural treatment. As it turns out, words for noises depend on locale. “In English a pig might go oink oink, but in Japanese it is bububububu,” writes Cox. This is due to the fact that “each language only has a limited number of phonemes and this makes it difficult to use words that exactly imitate some animal calls.”

One tidbit of particular interest is his discussion of universals, such as that in studying words from 6,000 languages, researchers from the University of Zurich discovered that many languages use the sound [n] in the word for nose — likely because the sound is said through the nose.

Accent gets considerable play in the book, with the effects of globalization noted in a variety of ways. The traditional East End cockney accent of London, says Cox, is shifting due to the “melting-pot of many accents with influences from England, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and elsewhere.” These inner-city voices “blend into a new accent” that everyone shares. London is not the only place where this is happening: Cox says similar phenomenons are occurring in Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. It is thanks to globalization “and rapid changes in ethnic diversity that we are lucky enough to earwitness accent and dialect evolution that otherwise would be very slow,” Cox concludes.

The book offers visual details on sound and accent, such as this map. Depending on where you live, “scone” might rhyme with “stone” or with “gone.”
Some may resent the new accents, Cox says, noting that “Ironically, a bigot who assumes that those who speak in an unfamiliar accent are less intelligent might be portraying their own shortcomings in being able to decode the speech.” This is because we judge things unconsciously based on how easy it is for our brains to process.

Rhetorical devices — across cultures — also get some airtime. Lowering the voice to appear more authoratative, for example, seems to work across cultures; Margaret Thatcher even worked with a voice coach to achieve this.

Cox covers a plethora of topics that might pique the interest of linguists, from the vocal articulations of the operatic castrati to beatboxing. In fact, if phonetics is your jam, you might be particularly adept at beatboxing: “Many sounds of beatboxing can be found in non-Western speech such as the clicks that feature in the Khosian languages of Africa,” Cox explains. Also of note is how some languages use inhaled sounds; Cox mentions the Icelandic habit of doing this when saying yes, but the same could be said of French. I distinctly remember as a 19-year-old, the very first evening I ever spent in Southern France, my host mom was agreeing “oui, oui, oui, oui,” with the last repetition said on an inhale. I was startled, since I had never yet encountered a human who did this in normal conversation. Of course, in beatboxing, this ability allows singers to make sounds continuously, without pausing for breath.

The role of technology in voice processing is an oft-repeated theme: autotuning, robotic theater actors, speech recording devices. Lest humans be afraid that machines are going to take their voiceover jobs, this does not seem to be immediately feasible. Cox says that computers must understand a text in order to produce “convincing speech,” pointing to examples such as “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Although “speech systems produced by the big tech firms are getting better and better,” they don’t exactly need to be perfect, says Cox. They make short, factual statements, which is “obviously much easier than reciting a play or a poem.”

If you’re looking for a book purely on language, this isn’t it — this is about part of language: the sound of it. As such, it will encourage you to listen more closely to human noise, even to feel the reverberations of sound in your throat and up through your nasal passages.