Some Thoughts On The Power of Speech

Posted by – September 21, 2013

Obviously I lean heavily on written communication, both in texting basic needs and writing long-form when ideas need room. Personally, I think the novel is best used when your/my/the author’s ideas about something large (our past, our future, technology, childhood, humanity, the soul, big stuff) are deep enough that you need an entire novel to explore them in proper detail. Length of a given novel should be tied to exploring its theme, I guess I’m saying, and the written word has a special magic, but…

…in a way text is lacking, as large amounts of information normally conveyed through tone, inflection and other nuances can be lost. Limiting oneself to text only, as the web often forces us to, is sort of the personal communication equivalent of converting music from vinyl to digital, you’re getting 101010 but you have lost information between 0-1, losing the sounds at 0.09 for example, missing lots of raw data that is in the analog recording… but much worse. While there are many valid arguments that digital gives both creator and listener more advantages than its downsides, and early adopters of digital recording (Frank Zappa for example) offer proof positive of that, losing verbal expression is an unambiguous net loss for both creator and listener.

Sarcasm and other subtle types of humor are very difficult to do without the nuances of speech, and easily can be misread as nonsensical or offensive… those who can make a comedy novel work, communicating humor clearly solely through text (Douglas Adams for example) have a special sort of genius that’s too often overlooked.

Speech is uniquely human, even more part of being alive than motion, animation. Through my college years I learned that my garbled speech made people uncomfortable, that people are naturally averse to sifting the signal from the noise and the time consumption implied. People are even more bothered by the differences in speech than the lack of animation. This is a major social obstacle for vent users, at least for those of us whose underlying condition is wrecking the vocal musculature on top of the respiratory failure (e.g. major problem if you’re vent-dependent because you’re compensating for a—known or unknown—neuromuscular disease, less of a problem if you’re on a ventilator due to spinal cord injury). For me, it meant I was limited to communicating with a handful of students who had a natural comprehension of “Nickenese” or the patience to learn, then limited to the times they were free and I was on campus.

There’s also something spiritual in the power of speech. A few months back I spoke with a Jesuit friend of mine who I hadn’t talked to since we were both Spring Hill students in like 2004. He still understood a solid 3/4 of what I said (over Skype and my non-functioning mic) despite the negative changes to my trach and vocal musculature since then, which I thought would be impossible (the good MacBook internal mic picking up when my headset mic inevitably fails does go a long way). This led me to theorize… that there must be some sort of spiritually-unique imprint in the voice, some sound beneath sound that can be recalled like we recall faces, and then climbed like a lifeline toward comprehension of the voice’s words. There’s definitely more to speech than the tangible.

The idea that there’s more to speech than immediately apparent isn’t new. One of the parts of the Jewish tradition that resonates the most with me is its concepts around the power of speech, the idea of speech creating forces

Demon escaping through your speech!  Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013

Demon escaping through your speech! Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013

in the spiritual world (which is synonymous with our world, but sort of an unseen 5th dimension). You say something good, good is perpetuated in the world. You say something bad, you’re creating an evil that can stick around in the world. It’s like unleashing a demon. One abusive phrase can follow someone for the rest of their lives. “Lashon haRa,” roughly translated as “the evil tongue,” is a major spiritual problem to be carefully avoided, to apologize for, to atone for.  I’m not even close to perfect on this, but I do try to stay aware of it.

Don’t take the power of speech for granted. For me verbal communication is more and more valuable because of its power and scarcity.  Like Helium-3 or something.

Nick