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This place matters

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The music of words

Every time I visit the dentist, after being lectured about flossing and being asked if I rinse my teeth with Mountain Dew after I brush (I'm a wee bit cavity prone), the hygienist pokes each of my teeth while reciting some numbers. I asked once what the numbers were, and I'm pretty sure the response was "Quiet, you. You stick to stewing in shame over your lack of flossing and let me worry about the poking and the numbers."
As she recites the same sequences of numbers over and over - "one two one, one two one, one two one, two three two, one two one..." - her words cease to be words and become a song. Albeit with really boring lyrics. I wonder if she knows she's singing; I wonder if the other patients hear the song when she pokes them with a stick while reciting numbers. 
Diana Deutsch hears the music. She's a professor of the music of psychology interviewed on an old episode of the NPR show Radiolab. She says that one day, she was editing a recording of her own voice, and happened to leave a short phrase, "sometimes behaves so strangely," on a loop. She left the room, and after a short time, she began to think she was hearing music back in the studio. But no, it was simply her own voice saying sometimes behave so strangely over and over.
Our words are full of music. 
Every language, every accent has its own language. From the lilt of the Irish brogue, which sounds for all the world just like an Irish jig, to the slow southern twang, to the regimented march of German, each language sings to its own tune. There are elements to the tunes that run across every language. Deutsch did a study in which she listened to parents praising their babies. In every language she studied, the pitch was the same - a high note that slides down into a low note. Say "good girl" to an imaginary baby out loud. Or watch a few seconds of the video below - the trainer uses that same tune whenever she praises the parrot. 

Some languages, Radiolab goes on to tell me, are more musical than others. Tonal languages use tone or pitch to indicate the meaning of words. For example, in Mandarin, the word bi means different things based on tone, as the lady with the trippy head tentacles explains.

A few examples of tonal languages, according to, are Thai, the African language Hausa, and some Mayan dialects. Ancient Greek was a tonal language, it says, but modern Greek is not. I have no idea how we know that a language no one alive has ever heard was tonal.
Deutsch wondered if people who speak tonal languages have better pitch than those who speak languages that aren't tonal. She did a study in which she played a series of notes to both English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking children, all of whom had grown up playing music. Only 14% of the English-speaking kids could name all the notes that were being played. 74% of the Mandarin-speakers could. 
Remember that next time you want to punch a karaoke singer at the local bar off the stage. It's not their fault that their voice is breaking your ears, it's the English language. 


Megi said...

Oh oh! I know what they're doing! I realize that wasn't the point of your post, but rather the lead in, but still. They're measuring the depth of your gum line in a couple spots on each tooth.

otin said...

I sang Karaoke....once. lol

Mark Murata said...

The speculation that ancient Greek was a tonal language has to do with the accent marks. The three most common seem to point up, point down, and there's one that curves up then down. However, unless an ancient source in a different language remarks that these Greeks are speaking a tonal language, it's speculative.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Interesting, thanks!

Gorilla Bananas said...

I would have been tempted to say "buckle my shoe" after your dentist said "one two".

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

I might, but for the pointy thing in my mouth :)

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