Monday, March 22, 2010

The Senses: Listening and Language

It wouldn't be wrong to call this site a celebration of language. Most of what will be linked to will be lots of words. Some will be spoken but most will be written down. (Is "written down" anachronistic in the era of word processors, online editors, and bytes?).

Language however is hard to define and understand. We talk about language using language. For most of us the languages we use are inherently limited by our ability to say and listen to words. Sign language is the notable exception. The rule tends to be that languages are based on the sounds we can make and listen to.

Olivier Burckhardt has posted his two part essay originally written for Quadrant magazine. Spirals to Unravel a Mystery starts with the issue of how to understand language but quickly shifts to the connection between language and sound.

He takes us through science and literature. Covering technical details of the ear and also sharing our cultural understanding of sound and language. Whether reminding us that hearing is not a choice - "after all we can close the lids of our eyes but cannot do so with our ears" or pointing out that "as one Hindu mystic pointed out to a French cardinal, even for the God of the Western Bible to have said 'Let there be Light', implies there must have been sound before light" there are many moments that will make you stop and think.

Once you're in the thick of Spirals it is a wonderful read. How often do Dante, Werner Heisenberg and Joseph Heller get quoted in the same essay? There are interesting facts sprinkled throughout. Did you know that "with an average of 0.000024 watts generated by human speech, it would take two and a half million people to keep a 60watt light bulb burning"?

Spirals shares the unique property of the best essays. You end up knowing more about language, speech, and hearing and understanding. You end up with new insights. You will have a new appreciation for the subject. And you are left with more questions and topics for discussion. Questions you didn't know could be asked before you read Spirals. Topics you didn't realize where worth contemplating before Spirals revealed them.

What more could you ask for?

1 comment:

Lene Andersen said...

Sounds (!) great! OK, so for a Monday morning, it's a bit ambitious for those of u who wake up slowly, but I'll get there later in the day when I'm fully conscious...