Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/November 1889/Speech and Song I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




IN dealing with the two great forms of local utterance, it will be most convenient to take them in their historical, or at any rate their logical, order. Whatever "native wood-notes wild" our hypothetical half-human ancestor may have "warbled" by way of love-ditties before he taught himself to speak, there is no doubt that singing as an art is a later development than articulate speech, without which, indeed, song would be like a body without a soul. I will, therefore, treat of speech first; and it will clear the ground if I begin with a definition. Physiologically, speech is the power of modifying vocal sound by breaking it up into distinct elements, and molding it, if I may say so, into different forms. Speech, in this sense, is the universal faculty of which the various languages by means of which men hold converse with each other are the particular manifestations. Speech is the abstract genus, language the concrete species.

I am happy to say it does not fall within the scope of my present purpose to discuss the origin of language, a mysterious problem, on which the human brain has exercised itself so much and to so little purpose, that some years ago, I believe, the French Academy declined to receive any further communications on the subject. The origin of the voice is a different matter. The vocal function is primarily a means of expression. I see no reason for disagreeing with Darwin, when he says that "the primeval use and means of development of the voice" was as an instrument of sexual attraction. The progenitors of man, both male and female, are supposed to have made every effort to charm each other by vocal melody, or what they considered to be such, and by constant practice with that object the vocal organs became developed. Darwin seems inclined to believe that, as women have sweeter voices than men, they were the first to acquire musical powers in order to attract the other sex, by which I suppose he means that the feminine voice owes its greater sweetness to more persevering culture for purposes of flirtation. I do not know whether the ladies of the present day will own this soft impeachment, or whether they will be flattered by the suggestion that their remote ancestresses lived in a perpetual leap-year of courtship. Other emotions, however, besides the master passion of love had to be expressed; joy, anger, fear, and pain had all to find utterance, and the nervous centers excited by these various stimuli threw the whole muscular system into violent contractions, which in the case of the muscles moving the chest and the vocal cords naturally produced sound—that is to say, voice. These movements, at first accidental and purposeless, in time became inseparably associated with the emotional state giving rise to them, so as to coincide with it, and thus serve as an index or expression thereof. From this to the voluntary emission of vocal sounds is an easy step, and it is probable enough that the character of those sounds was primarily due to the "imitation and modification of different natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man's own instinctive cries."[1]

The mechanism of the voice is extremely simple in its general principles, though highly complex in its details. Fortunately, a knowledge of the latter is not required for the comprehension of the main facts relative to the production of the voice, and I shall not further allude to them here. Vocal sound is produced solely in the larynx, an elementary fact which must be thoroughly grasped, as many absurd notions are current even among people who should know better, such as that the voice may be produced at the back of the nose, in the stomach, and elsewhere. The larynx is a musical instrument of very complex structure, partaking both of the reed and the string type, the former, however, distinctly predominating. It is essentially a small chamber with cartilaginous walls, which is divided into an upper and a lower compartment by a sort of sliding floor, or double valve, formed by the two vocal cords. In breathing this valve opens, its two lateral halves gliding wide apart from each other, so as to allow a broad column of air to pass through; in speaking or singing, on the other hand, the valve is closed, but for a narrow rift along its middle. Through this small chink the air escaping from the lungs is forced out gradually in a thin stream, which is compressed, so to speak, between the edges of the cords, that form the opening technically called the "glottis," through which it passes. The arrangement is typical of the economical workmanship of Nature. The widest possible entrance is prepared for the air which is taken into the lungs, as the freest ventilation of their whole mucous surface is necessary. When the air has been fully utilized for that purpose, it is, if need be, put to a new use on its way out for the production of voice, and in that case it is carefully husbanded and allowed to escape in severely regulated measure, every particle of it being made to render its exact equivalent in force to work the vocal mill-wheel. When the air is driven from the lungs up the windpipe it strikes against the under surface of the floor or double valve formed by the vocal cords, which are firmly stretched to receive the shock, forces them apart to a greater or less extent, and, in rushing out between them, throws them into vibration. The vibration of the vocal cords makes the column of air itself vibrate, and the vibration is communicated to the air in the upper part of the throat, the nose, and mouth, from which finally it issues as sound. The vocal cords are the "reeds" of the vocal instrument, and as, owing to the extraordinary number and intricate arrangement of their muscular fibers, they can change their length and shape and thickness in an almost infinite variety of ways, they are equal in effect to many different reeds. If the vocal cords can not move so as to bring their edges almost into contact, or if there is any substance between them which prevents them from coming together, the voice is destroyed; if there is anything (such as a growth) in or on one of them, its vibration is more or less checked, and hoarseness is the consequence. The primary sound generated in the larynx is modified by the shape, size, and density of the parts through which the vibrating column of air has to pass before it issues from the "barrier of the teeth." These "resonators," include the part of the larynx above the vocal cords, with the little sounding-board, the epiglottis, covering it; the upper part of the throat or pharynx, the nasal passages with certain echoing caves in the bones of the skull which communicate therewith; and the mouth, with the soft palate and uvula, tongue, cheeks, teeth, and lips. It is to these resonators, as well as to the size and shape of the larynx itself—and those parts, like the features of the face, are never exactly similar in any two individuals—that the distinctive quality, or timbre, of the voice is due.

Timbre is the physiognomy of the voice by which the speaker can be recognized even when unseen. Just as the face may be lit up with joy, darkened with sorrow, or distorted with passion, so may the voice be altered by strong mental emotion. This is due to the influence of the mind on the nervous system, which controls every part of the body: if it be stimulated, increased action will be excited; if disordered by shock, feeble irregular movements will be produced, the limbs will shake, and the voice tremble. From the effect of peculiarities of physical conformation on the voice it will be readily understood that timbre may be, in some degree, a national or racial peculiarity. There are also certain physical types which correspond to particular timbres of the voice. I have noticed this particularly in persons of like complexion even when different in race. Thus, a certain sharp metallic clearness of articulation is often found in individuals of ruddy complexion, light yellow hair, and hard blue eyes, while rich, mellow tones, with a tendency to portamento in ordinary speech, are often associated with black hair and florid face. A remarkable point is that the same voice may be altogether different in timbre in singing from what it is in speaking. The difference is probably due to the fact that in singing the resonators are, instinctively, or as the result of training, managed in a more artistically effective manner than in ordinary speech.

Speech differs from song as walking does from dancing; speech may be called the prose, song the poetry of vocal sound. Mr. Herbert Spencer has defined song as "emotional speech," but this term might with greater justice be used to designate the hystero-epileptic oratory which threatens to become acclimatized in this sober island, or even to the exchange of amenities between two angry cabmen. It would be more accurate to call song "musical speech," using the word "musical" in its strict sense as signifying sound with definite variations of tone and regularity of time. But, just as there may be "songs without words," so there may be speech without voice, as in whispering. Sound, as we have already seen, is produced in the larynx, but articulation, or the transformation of meaningless sound into speech, is performed in the mouth; in speaking, therefore, the two parts work together, the larynx sending out a stream of sound, and the mouth, by means of the tongue, cheeks, palate, teeth, and lips, breaking it up into variously formed jets of words. In other words, the larynx supplies the raw material of sound which the mouth manufactures into speech. Time, which is an essential element of song, is altogether disregarded in speech, while the intervals of tone are so irregular as to defy notation, and are filled up with a number of intermediate sounds instead of being sharply defined. The voice glides about at its own sweet will in speaking, obeying no rule whatever, while in song it springs or drops from one tone to the next over strictly measured gaps. In singing, short syllables are lengthened out and cease in fact to be short, and (except in certain kinds of dramatic singing and in recitative) the accent naturally falls on the vowels and not on the consonants. In speaking, only the lower third of the voice is employed as a rule, while in singing the greatest effect is generally produced, except in the case of contraltos and basses, by the use of the upper and middle notes. In speech the range of tone, even in the most excitable persons, hardly ever exceeds half an octave; in singing the average compass is two octaves. Singing tends to preserve purity of language, the rules which govern the utterance of every note also affecting the articulate element combined with it, and keeping the words cast in fixed forms a stereotype of sound, if I may venture the metaphor. Speech, on the other hand, like handwriting, is always changing. As Max Müller says: "A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue."[2] Thus speech not only tends to split language into dialects, but each dialect is being continually, though imperceptibly, modified not only in construction but in pronunciation. The pronunciation of an Englishman of Chaucer's day would be unintelligible to us, while that of one of Shakespeare's contemporaries would be as strange to our ears as the accent of an Aberdeen fishwife is to the average cockney. If the speaking voice has a distinctly sing-song character—that is to say, if it proceeds by musical intervals—the result is as grotesque as it would be to talk in blank verse, or, as Sir Toby Belch says, "to go to church in a galliard and come home in a coranto." On the other hand, the speaking voice becomes most sympathetic in its quality when it approaches the singing voice, the musical character, however, being concealed by the variety of its inflections. It is important that in speaking a musical note should never be recognized; the effect is as unpleasant to our ears as an accidental hexameter in a sentence of prose was to the ancients.

Wide as the difference is between speech and song, the great gulf fixed between them is partly filled up by intermediate modes of using the voice which partake of the nature of both. Thus there is the measured utterance of declamation, which may be so rhythmical in time and varied in tone as to be almost song. On the other hand, the recitativo of the opera approaches speech. Various intermediate forms between speech and song may be heard in the ordinary speech of certain races, notably in Italians, Welshmen, and the inhabitants of certain parts of Scotland and England. The Puritans, as is well known, uttered their formal and affected diction in a peculiar nasal tone; and the term "cant," though properly belonging to their sing-song delivery, came to be applied to the sentiments expressed by it. Many of the ancient orators, to judge from the description left us by Cicero and Quintilian, would seem to have sung their speeches, the style of declamation being, in fact, expressly termed cantus obscurior. As they generally spoke in the open air, and to vast audiences, this artificial mode of delivery may have been necessary in order to make the voice reach farther than if they had spoken in a more natural way. C. Gracchus used to have a musician behind him while he spoke, to give him the note from time to time with a musical instrument called a tonarion. A similar plan might, with much advantage to the "general ear," be adopted by certain modern orators, the crescendo of whose enthusiasm expresses itself in increasing intensity of shrillness.

Those who have not given much attention to the subject are apt to think of speaking, as Dogberry did of reading and writing, that it "comes by nature"—that it is, in fact, an instinctive act, which no more needs cultivation for its right performance than eating or sleeping. This is a great mistake. Speaking, even of that slipshod kind which is mostly used in ordinary conversation, is an art, and as such has to be learned, often with much labor. The complicated muscular actions, the nice nervous adjustments, the combination of these into one harmonious effort directed to a particular end, and, finally, the mastery of all these movements till they can be produced automatically without a direct and continuous exercise of will-power, form a complex process which takes years to learn, and which by many is even then very imperfectly acquired. Good speaking is a higher development of the art, which bears the same relation to speech as ordinarily heard that the horsemanship of an Archer or a Cannon bears to the performance of a costermonger's boy on the paternal donkey.

A man who speaks well not only makes himself intelligible to his hearers without difficulty to them, but with a minimum of effort on his own part. If the voice is properly used, the throat hardly ever suffers, but wrong production is a fertile source of discomfort and even disease in that region. It should be clearly understood that public speaking, in addition to its intellectual aspects, is a physical performance which requires "wind" and "muscle" and the perfect management of one's bodily resources, like any other athletic feat. To attempt to speak in public without previous training is like trying to climb the Matterhorn without preparation, and is just as certain to end in failure if not disaster.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the training of the voice should begin almost in the cradle. I do not, of course, mean that a baby should be taught to squall according to rule, or that the prattle of children should be made a laborious task. But I wish to insist on the importance of surrounding the child, as soon as it begins to lisp, with persons who speak well. "All languages," as old Roger Ascham says, "both learned and mother tongues, are begotten and gotten solely by imitation. For as ye use to hear so ye learn to speak; if you hear no other ye speak not yourself; and whom ye only hear of them ye only learn." Quintilian says: "Before all ... let the nurses speak properly. The boy will hear them first, and will try to shape his words by imitating them." This applies chiefly to pronunciation and the correct use of words; but much might also be done for the right management of the voice if every child could grow up among people who speak well. I should be disposed to make it an essential point in the selection of a nurse or governess that she should have a good voice as well as a refined accent.

In antiquity the training of an orator was almost as elaborate an affair as the training of a race-horse is with us. Not only the voice, but the whole man, physical, intellectual, and moral, was carefully prepared, with conscientious minuteness of detail, for the great business of life, the making of speeches. In this system of education the development of the voice naturally held a large place, and the phonascus, or voice-driller, was an indispensable accessory, not only of every school of oratory, but of many formed orators. Of the methods of the phonascus we know little, but we find hints in some of the classical writers that, like certain of his professional brethren in more recent days, he was not disinclined to magnify his office. Seneca, in one of his letters, warns his friend against living, vocally speaking, in subjection to his phonascus, and implies that he might as well keep another artist to superintend his walking. In our own day the phonascus still survives in public life, though perhaps more as a luxury than an acknowledged necessity. A celebrated novelist, dramatic author, and orator, who passed over to the great majority many years ago, used always to put himself under the guidance of a vocal mentor before delivering a speech. Every tone, every pose, and every gesture was carefully prepared and industriously practiced, under the direction of Mr. Frederick Webster, brother of the celebrated comedian, Benjamin Webster. That the elaborate training of the ancients was eminently successful is shown by the powers of endurance which it is clear they must have possessed. They habitually spoke for five or six hours, and even longer, and, in order to appreciate their staying power, it must be remembered that they spoke in the open air, amid all the tumult of the forum, which was capable of holding eighty thousand people, and with an amount and vigor of action of which the gesticulations of an Italian preacher are but a pale reflex. Long-windedness was at one time cultivated as a fine art by Roman orators, when they had to plead before a judge whom they supposed to be in favor of the other side. These prototypes of our modern obstructionists were aptly termed moratores, or delayers, because they postponed as far as possible the passing of the sentence. The abuse finally reached such a height that a law had to be passed limiting the length of pleadings in public cases to the running out of one clepsydra. It is impossible to say exactly what period of time this was equivalent to, as the water-clocks of the Romans were of different sizes, and the rapidity of flow must have varied under different circumstances; from twenty minutes to half an hour may, however, be taken as roughly representing the average length of a speech under this strict system of "closure." On the whole, I think we use the voice in public even more than the ancients, and there is, therefore, all the more reason for its being properly trained. Good speaking is nowadays important, not only from the artistic but from the business point of view; and, even for "practical men," it can not be a waste of time to acquire so valuable a faculty. These arguments may perhaps seem superfluous, as the proposition they are intended to support is self-evident. I lay stress on them, however, because I am convinced that the necessity of training the speaking voice is very imperfectly appreciated by most people.

It is not within my province to discuss the technical details of voice-training. I will only say that every system of vocal instruction should aim at strengthening the power of the voice, increasing its compass, and purifying its tone, and, above all, at giving the speaker perfect control over it, even in the very whirl-wind of oratorical passion. It would be well if every school in the land had a master of elocution attached to it, and if the art of delivery were taught to every boy as part of the regular course of education. In the excellent system of education which Rabelais sketched out, the development of the voice is expressly mentioned as part of Gargantua's athletic training. In the middle of a detailed description of his swimming and climbing exercises and practice in the use of weapons of all kinds, we are told that "pour s'exercer le thorax et poulmons crioit comme tous les diables. Je l'ouy une fois appellant Eudemon depuis la porte Sainct Victor jusques à Montmartre. Stentor n'eut onques telle voix à la bataille de Troye."[3] There is a hint for schoolmasters of the present day. The "young barbarians" under their charge might by degrees be made to look on strength and beauty of voice, and skill in using it, as an athletic distinction; this would at once ennoble the subject in their eyes, and make elocution a matter of keen competition.

As part of the general vocal training which I think desirable, I should be disposed to urge that all children and young people should learn to sing as far as their natural capacity will allow. Even those with little or no musical endowment will thus learn to use their voices better in speaking. I may say here, though it is rather anticipating, that, if I think it desirable for speakers to learn to sing, I think it still more necessary that singers should learn to speak. Too many of those who soar aloft on the wings of song despise the musa pedestris of speech, and take no trouble to acquire what they look upon as an inferior and possibly superfluous accomplishment—with what result is known to cultivated listeners whose ears have been tortured by the uncouth distortions and mutilations to which singers often subject the words they have to utter.

Of the management of the voice I can not say much here. The chief thing is that the speaker should make himself distinctly heard by the whole of the audience, and to this end art serves better than loudness. A weak voice, properly managed, will carry farther than a powerful organ worked by sheer brute force. Mr. Bright's use of his voice always gave one the impression of a large reserve of power. There seemed to be no effort in his delivery, even when speaking to a mighty concourse of people, and yet his voice was

"To the last verge of the vast audience sent,
And played with each wild passion as it went."

One element of success in this matter is no doubt the art of compelling an audience to listen. As Montaigne, in his quaint old French, says: "La parole est moitié à celuy qui parle, moitié à celuy qui l'escoute; celuy cy se doibt préparer à la recevoir, selon le bransle qu'elle prend: comme entre ceulx qui jouent à la paulme, celuy qui soubstient se desmarche et s'appreste, selon qu'il veoid remuer celuy qui luy jecte le coup et selon la forme du coup."[4] Every speaker should know the exact limits of his own vocal powers, and he must be careful never to go beyond them, for the sake of his hearers no less than his own. He must learn to judge instinctively of distance, so as to throw his voice to the farthest part of his audience. A speaker, and, I may say, a singer also, should not hear his own voice too loudly. Artistes and orators are often very much disappointed, and think their voice is not traveling well when they themselves do not hear it very distinctly. The fact is that when the speaker does not hear his voice this proves that it reaches to a distant part of the room, and that there is very little rebound. Here I may remark that we never hear our voices as other people hear them. Our own voices are conveyed to the auditory nerve, not only through the outside air, but more directly from the inside, through the Eustachian tube, as well as through the muscles and bones of the mouth and head; the singer not only hears his own voice from a different quarter, as we may say, but he hears besides the contraction of his own muscles. The fact is well illustrated by the phonograph: a listener can recognize other people's voices, but if he speaks into the phonograph, and afterward reproduces his own voice, it does not sound at all like itself to him, because he does not hear it in the manner he is accustomed to, and because he hears it stripped of the various accompanying sounds which are usually associated with it to his ear.

The acoustic peculiarities of the place in which he has to speak must, if possible, be carefully studied beforehand by the orator. Public buildings, however, vary so greatly in their size and construction that it is impossible to lay down any general rules for the guidance of speakers in this matter. Each hall, church, court, and theatre has its own acoustic character, which can be learned only by experience; the voice must be, as it were, tuned to it. It is well if this experience can be gained by the orator before he faces his audience; but he must remember that trying his voice in an empty room is an altogether different thing from actually using it in the same place packed with a solid mass of wheezing, coughing, and perspiring humanity. Handel is said to have comforted himself, when one of his oratorios had been performed to empty benches, by the reflection that "it made ze moosic shound all ze better," but this consolation is denied to the orator. There are some buildings which are so utterly bad from the acoustic point of view that even experienced speakers are little better off than novices. The House of Lords has, or used to have, an unenviable reputation in this respect. A story is told of the late Lord Lyttelton that, after exhausting his voice in vain efforts to make his brother peers hear a motion which he wished to propose, he in despair wrote it down and asked the clerk at the table to read it out. That functionary, however, was quite unable to decipher the writing, and Lord Lyttelton complained that he was cut off from communication with his fellows. Science has not always been successful in coping with the acoustic difficulty. In 1848 it was so difficult for speakers to make themselves heard in the French Chamber, that a committee, consisting of the leading scientific luminaries of the day—such as Arago, Babinet, Dumas (the chemist, not the author of "The Three Musketeers"), Becquerel, Chevreul (the centenarian who died the other day), Pouillet, Regnault, and Duhamel—was appointed to study the case and suggest a remedy. After numerous experiments they hit on a contrivance, designed on the most scientific principles, which was to make the orator's voice ring like a clarion to the farthest benches. The last state of the speaker, however, was worse than the first; he felt as if his voice was stifled under a huge night-cap, and the highly scientific sound-reflector had to be discarded as a failure. Indeed, modern public buildings are so often defective in this respect that I am not surprised to find M. Ch. Gamier, who designed the Grand Opéra in Paris, exclaiming dolefully, "The science of theatrical acoustics is still in its infancy, and the result in any given case is uncertain." So impressed is he with the shortcomings of modern architecture as regards the conveyance of sound, that he frankly confesses that, in the construction of the Opera-House, he "had no guide, adopted no principle, based his design on no theory"; he simply left the acoustic properties of the building to chance. The result has not been altogether satisfactory, though it has been no worse than in many other buildings where the architect did his best to make the acoustic conditions perfect. One of the most remarkable buildings from the acoustic point of view that I have ever seen is the beehive-shaped Temple in Salt Lake City. It holds from twelve to fourteen thousand people, and one can literally hear a pin fall. When I was in the Temple, with some other travelers, in 1882, the functionary corresponding to the verger of ordinary churches stood at the farthest end and dropped a pin into his hat. The sound of its fall was most distinctly audible to all present. The scratching of the pin against the side of the hat was also plainly heard across the whole breadth of the building. The Temple was designed by Brigham Young, who professed to have been directly inspired by the Almighty in the matter, as he knew nothing of acoustics. The resonance of the building is so loud that branches of trees have to be suspended from the ceiling in several places in order to diminish it. It is likely enough that Brigham Young's inspiration had a not very recondite and purely terrestrial source, for his Beehive is only a slight modification of the whispering-gallery in St. Paul's. The bad acoustic properties of buildings may be remedied by what doctors call "palliative treatment." Charles Dickens's experience as a public reader made him a man of ready resource in meeting such difficulties. On one occasion, when he was going to lecture at Leeds, Mr. Edmund Yates, who had spoken in the same hall the evening before, sent him word that the acoustic conditions of the place were very bad. Dickens at once telegraphed instructions that curtains should be hung round the walls at the back of the gallery; by this means he was able to make himself more easily heard.

The speaker should take the greatest care of his voice, which is the instrument both of his usefulness and of his fame, but of course it is not always easy for him to do so. Still, he should, if possible, make it a rule not to speak when his voice is hoarse or fatigued, and, when he has a great oratorical effort to make, he should reserve himself for it. Tobacco, alcohol, and fiery condiments of all kinds are best avoided by those who have to speak much, or at least they should be used in strict moderation. I feel bound to warn speakers addicted to the "herb nicotian" against cigarettes. Like tippling, the effect of cigarette-smoking is cumulative, and the slight but constant absorption of tobacco juice and smoke makes the practice far more noxious in the long run than any other form of smoking. Our forefathers, who used regularly to end their evenings under the table, seemed to have suffered little of the well-known effects of alcohol on the nerves, while the modern tippler, who is never intoxicated, is a being whose whole nervous system may be said to be in a state of chronic inflammation. In like manner cigarette-smokers (those at least who inhale the smoke, and do not merely puff it "from the lips outward," as Carlyle would say) are often in a state of chronic narcotic poisoning. The old jest about the slowness of the poison may seem applicable here, but, though the process may be slow, there can be little doubt that it is sure. Even if it does not kill the body, it too often kills or greatly impairs the victim's working efficiency and usefulness in life. The local effects of cigarettes in the mouth must also be taken into account by those whose work lies in the direction of public speech. The white spots on the tongue and inside of the cheeks, known as "smoker's patches," are believed by some doctors with special experience to be more common in devotees of the cigarette than in other smokers; this unhealthy condition of the mouth may not only make speaking troublesome, or even painful, but it is now proved to be a predisposing cause of cancer. All fiery or pungent foods, condiments, or drinks tend to cause congestion of the throat, and if this condition becomes chronic it may lead to impairment, if not complete loss, of voice. The supposed miraculous virtues of the mysterious possets and draughts on which some orators pin their faith exist mainly in the imagination of those who use them; at best they do nothing more than lubricate the joints of the vocal machine so as to make it work more smoothly. This is just as well done by means of a glass of plain water. In France water sweetened with sugar is the grand vocal elixir of political orators. As Madame de Girardin said, somewhat unkindly: "Many things can be dispensed with in the Tribune. Talent, wit, conviction, ideas, even memory, can be dispensed with, but not eau sucrée." Stimulants may give a sort of "Dutch courage" to the orator, and may carry him successfully through a vocal effort in which indisposition or nervousness might otherwise have caused him to fail, but the immediate good which they do is dearly purchased by the thickening and roughening of the mucous surface of the throat to which they ultimately give rise.

Before leaving the subject of the speaking voice, a word or two may be said on what is more a matter of curious speculation than of practical interest. Is the human voice growing in power and beauty, or is it tending to decay? Certain physiologists assure us that the retina has acquired the power of distinguishing colors by degrees, and that the process will probably continue, so that our descendants will by and by evolve the power of seeing colors now quite unknown to us. On the other hand, it is undeniable that civilization, so far from increasing the keenness of our sight, threatens to make spectacles universally necessary. There can be no doubt that the voice has developed greatly since our "half-human ancestors" wooed each other in the primeval forests, and it is conceivable that it may in time to come acquire the power of producing musical effects at present undreamed of. It is also probable enough that as the voice gains in sweetness it may lose in power, the latter quality being more required in barbarous than in highly civilized conditions. On the other hand, we are taller and of larger chest-girth than our predecessors even of a not very remote date; it is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that the average lungs and larynx are bigger nowadays, and the air-blast from the lungs stronger. This would appear to justify us in believing that the voice is stronger than it was even two or three centuries ago. There are, however, no facts that I know of to prove it.

Of the ethnology of the voice little or nothing is certainly known. Almost the only facts I know of coming under this head are—(1) the superior sonorousness of the Italian voice, and (2) the want of resonance in the voices of some Australian aborigines, which is supposed to be due to the extreme smallness of the hollow spaces in the skull which serve as resonance chambers. Yet there is an infinite diversity in the voices of different nations, arising from difference of physical conformation, habit of speech, climate, etc. It is to our climate that Milton attributed the fact, which strikes all foreigners, that English people speak with the mouth half shut. "For we Englishmen," he says, "being far northerly, do not open our mouths in the cold air wide enough to grace a southern tongue, but are observed by all other nations to speak exceeding close and inward; so that to smatter Latin with an English mouth is as ill a hearing as law French." Then look at our American cousins, in whom it is not the mouth but the nose that is the "peccant part"—is it climate or variation of structure that has wrought the change in their original English speech; or is it simply a twang inherited from their Puritan ancestors, who took their "cant" with them to the New World? Americans, including even so refined a scholar as Mr. Lowell, boast that they alone keep the true tradition of English speech; but I can not believe that our forefathers, "in the spacious times of great Elizabeth," spoke in the accents of Hosea Biglow. The difficulty, or rather impossibility, of studying the variations of the voice under culture has been due to the want of any means of permanently recording its tones. Now, however, that the phonograph has emerged from the condition of a scientific toy, comparative phonology may, perhaps, take its place among the sciences. Besides this and other results, Mr. Edison's wonderful instrument will preserve the fame of orators, actors, and singers—hitherto the most evanescent kind of glory, as it had to be taken altogether on trust—in a form as concrete as a picture or a poem. The little revolving cylinders will reproduce "the sound of a voice that is still," and will enable us to have "the little voice set lisping once again" years after our darling has been laid in an untimely grave. There seems to be something almost uncanny in the power of thus permanently enshrining the most fleeting part of man, and reawakening at will the living accents of one who, being dead, yet speaketh to the bodily ear.—Contemporary Review.

  1. "Descent of Man," second edition, 1882, p. 87.
  2. "Nature," January 6, 1870.
  3. For exercise, his throat and lungs cried out like all the devils. I once heard him calling Eudemon from the Porte Saint Victor to Montmartre. Stentor in the Trojan War had no such voice.
  4. Speech belongs half to the speaker and half to the hearer; the latter should prepare himself to receive it, according to the impetus it obtains. As with tennis-players, the one to whom the ball is served poses and makes ready according to the motions of the server and the form of the service.