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A deep dive into voice research covers lyrical lilts, gargled rasps, and everything in between

This is the Voice

John Colapinto
Simon and Schuster
320 pp.
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The larynx is critical for two broad functions: one life-sustaining, aiding in respiration and preventing the aspiration of food into the lungs; and the other life-enhancing, contributing to phonation, an essential component of communication. There was a time when the latter was largely ignored by researchers. However, in recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in the voice by investigators from a diverse range of disciplines. In his new book, This Is the Voice, journalist John Colapinto creates a compelling narrative surrounding this vast and complex topic and investigates what makes the voice uniquely human.

Colapinto creatively describes the structure of the book as “a little like the vocal signal itself.” He starts at the beginning of a human life, examining how the voice is first exhibited in the cry of a newborn baby and then, remarkably rapidly, shaped into speech, eventually allowing communication partners to engage in conversation. The scope of the book then “radiates outward like a soundwave” to explore how the voice functions in society, including as a prominent marker of status and class, as an indicator of gender and racial identity, and sometimes as a signal of sexual orientation. It also addresses the distinctive voices of religious leaders and those involved in mass broadcast and finally the voices of political leaders who have shaped our society. Cola­pinto concludes, appropriately, by recognizing that even though the complex biological processes associated with aging do not spare the voice, they also impart a wisdom that can only be achieved with life experience.

The voice is a vital part of the uniquely human attribute known as speech, and while the focus of the book is not necessarily on language, Colapinto does consider voice and speech in the broader context of communication. He argues that the voice was selectively advantageous in evolutionary history and emphasizes the role the voice played in creating language in humans. Here, Colapinto draws on the pioneering work of Philip Lieberman, whose theory asserts that “Language, far from being a purely mental phenomenon, is a physical act whose first stirrings can be traced back, hundreds of millions of years, to the oldest, air-breathing vertebrate (the lungfish), as voice.” Colapinto goes on to provide compelling evidence that in our early hominin history, a series of advantageous genetic mutations changed the respiratory and vocal apparatuses and basal ganglia to give rise to speech and prime the brain for language.

“Just as every human speaker emits vocal signals whose shape, rhythm, and tune offer strong clues about their geographic origins, socioeconomic background, and education level, all of us, as listeners, parse other people’s pronunciation for such clues and draw instant inferences, often quite inaccurate, about the speaker,” observes Colapinto. In one notable example, he describes how simple alterations in vowel and consonant pronunciations as well as prosody cause us to rapidly stigmatize speakers from the south as “backwards, undereducated,” northerners as “elitist,” and Californians as “hopeless flakes.”

The voice can also express emotion and produce song, thus illuminating the inner self. Colapinto explores the emotional power of song and how the singer, with delicate control of the vocal instrument, can bring immense pleasure to the listener. While discussing the voice of American operatic soprano Renée Fleming, Colapinto muses: “How she shapes that sound into something we deem ‘beautiful,’ so that each note hangs for a moment in the air, as present as an abstract Brancusi sculpture—shaped and shimmering in space, textured, polished, and conforming to all the criteria of proportion and harmony that Plato said embody perfection in the arts—well, that’s another question entirely.

Colapinto begins his book by detailing his personal experience with a voice injury, stating: “I took for granted the sounds that emerged from between my lips.” As a voice scientist and rehabilitation expert, I regularly hear this same sentiment from my clients. As the book concluded, I was surprised to learn that after years of living with a voice injury, he ultimately decided against pursuing surgical vocal fold treatment. I was ultimately satisfied, however, that he had found peace and genuine appreciation for his unique voice.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Otolaryngology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.