At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips. Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill. So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings. On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.
Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing). Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature. However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.
1. Foreign vocabulary
The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language. When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days. For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.
2. Dialect and accents
If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice. Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive. I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then. Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.
The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.
The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them. They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura. in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.
Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start. This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion. An important lesson was learned! In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view. I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™? From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…