Sunday, March 23, 2014

Language and the body

I was just thinking about how, when we live in America again, I'm going to have to stop saying "I'll SMS you" and start saying "I'll text you", because no one refers to the Short Message System (for text transmission on cell phones) by its acronym over there.

I was struck by the fact that it seems harder to say "text" than to say "ess-em-ess". I mean, "text" is one syllable and "ess-em-ess" is three. Why does "ess-em-ess" seem easier to me to say, so that I slightly resent having to switch to "text"?

Well, look at what the body's doing when you say "text". "T", at least my "t", is a small explosion of air while the tongue comes off the back of the teeth. Then we're in the vowel, "ehhhh", a smooth flow of air with a relatively open mouth; not as open as "aaa"... but nobody except the cheeks is doing any work.

But then comes "xt" which is, of course, really "kst" -- we start with what I believe is a velar fricative, the back of the tongue tensed against the tensed throat, ragged air coming through, and then we immediately have to slide into a scratchy sibilant, and then slam into that "t" explosion. If we relax the muscles of the tongue and throat between each effortful element of "xt", we don't get "xt" but rather "keset".

In "SMS" the most difficult thing we have to manage is that sibilant, "s". "m" is a cinch -- it's just the lips pressed together and humming, pressed together as tight or loose as you like, no finesse or muscular coordination needed, the first consonant a baby can manage. And better still, not only are these consonants a walk in the park, after each consonant we get a break, that same vowel, "ehhhh", where we're gliding along, hardly any work at all.

"ess-em-ess" is a stroll through the park. "xt" is anaerobic exercise, high-repetition squats.

Language lives in the body. A written sentence is a series of recorded instructions to the body, to do the work of making sounds. When you read this sentence, whether the fussy preening bird of your consciousness notices it or not, your body is remembering the feeling of each phoneme in the body: which sounds are easy, which sounds are hard, what each word feels like in the mouth, stress or relaxation, haste or languorous slowness: the inviting welcome of a round O, the intense attack of slamming a word shut on a K.

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