AS A KID in Cleveland, I worked occasionally at WBOE, a pioneer public radio station operated by that city’s Board of Education. I suspect I was identified early on as a kid who talked a lot. And evidently I knew how to read; a comic book, a real book, a script, whatever.
WBOE, first licensed November 1938 to the Cleveland Board of Education. My involvement was in the 1950s. Image by Louis Grebenak, c. 1939, from pinterest.com
Now and again, I got off school for a morning or afternoon, took the bus downtown to the Board of Education’s headquarters, read, rehearsed and performed a kid’s role in a transcription for later WBOE broadcast. Back in those days, the recording medium was an oversize treated disc. Wire recorders, the precursor of tape recorders, were another option, but I believe disc transcription was preferred for its editing capabilities and sound quality.
Which brings me to why a “Diary” entry by Harry Strawson in the London Review of Books, March 16, 2017, solved one of the puzzles of my youth: Why do recordings of one’s own voice sound so weird?
Harry Strawson writes, “I suppose it is a common thing, to feel unnerved by the sound of your own voice on record. Do I really sound like that? There’s a reason for this. In the recording, sound reaches the ear only through air conduction. But when I talk, I hear the sound of my voice not only through air conduction but through bone conduction. As I talk my vocal chords set off vibrations that travel through the body to the inner ear. Flesh and bone conduct deeper tones better than air, and the acoustics of the human skull give a lower, richer, more mellifluous sound.”
Admittedly, I never thought of my WBOE performances as mellifluous. Come to think of it, back then I probably didn’t know what the word meant. It was only through a WBOE director that I learned the difference between the words “are” and “our,” as in … Gave proof thro’ the night that are flag was still there.
Image from flagworldinc.com
Indeed, the rest of Strawson’s fascinating article concerns spoken English, especially as practiced in his native Great Britain. As he describes it, “The spoken British National Corpus is being compiled by the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press. CASS was set up to investigate the use and manipulation of language.”
Its goal is assembling a multimillion-word record of English through documented collections submitted by the public. Strawson took part in the project for more than a year after reading a CASS announcement on a university bulletin board in 2015. For each hour of audio submitted, he earned £18, about $22.50. “They could be on any topic,” Strawson writes, “so long as the conversations were as natural as possible.”
He observes how much British English has changed in the past 50 years: “And as American influence grows, the phenomenon known as ‘yod-dropping’ (whereby ‘duke’ becomes ‘dook’ and ‘news’ becomes ‘nooze’) is set to become prevalent.”
As a practicing ‘Merican, I’ll bet he’s talking about “de-uk” and “ne-ooze.”
Another change to the Queen’s English, well, likely not to hers, is the death of the dental fricative, the “th” sound created by placing the tongue against the upper teeth. I think of “zuh” as one of its replacements: Ja, veh laugh in zuh car…” Or the Brooklynese “duh”: Look’a duh bezoozers on …
I am confident that the Queen has proper dental fricatives.
In Britain, the dental fricative is being replaced by an “f” sound, as in Well, the fing is, … Strawson admits, “In conversations with my grandmother (not a native speaker of English) the dental fricative is alive and well, ‘I do think this is going to be a rather good year for the roses,’ she says after I compliment her on her garden. In my own speech, the dental fricative seems to come and go. It’s mostly there for my grandmother, but mostly absent for my brother.”
Golly, I’m sure glad are speech here in ‘Merica doesn’t have such subtleties. ds