SOUNDS, SENSITIVITIES – and CELLAR DOORS

Another extract from a work in progress, or, if that project comes to nothing, a fragment from a series of jottings (see elsewhere on this blog for others): either way, I keep returning to my fascination with the symbolic, psychological, psychic effects of  the sounds of words…

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The traditional view of words and names is that, apart from those words that directly imitate natural noises, there is only an arbitrary link between sound and meaning. But a few psychologists and neuroscientists have claimed to find evidence that phonemes (the human speech sounds that constitute words) have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality*. Their data suggests that the effect on feelings of certain phoneme combinations (nonsense examples they worked with included bupaba, which was received positively and dugada which was negatively perceived) depends on a specific acoustic feature which can be measured, namely, the dynamic shifts within the phonemes’ frequency.

At Laurentian University in Canada researchers examined the links between proper names and hearer’s emotions: The ten most popular boys’ and girls’ names for most years of the 20th century were studied in terms of the emotional associations of their sounds and their pronounceability. A set of historical and socioeconomic variables, namely, war, depression, the advent of the birth control pill, inflation, and year seemed to correspond with the scores that members of the public gave for name length, emotionality, and pronounceability.

At a more human level UK national treasure Stephen Fry tells us his favourite word is ‘moist’. He’s being arch and gently provocative as usual, but says that he just likes the sound of it. I have said that I find the sound of the word ‘mellifluous’ pleasant, but friends have told me they hear in it prissiness and fussiness. My own fondness for ‘buoyancy’, too has been a cause of bemusement for some.

Whether we are talking about ‘pure’ sounds that imitate the noises of nature like ‘plop’,  ‘buzz’ and ‘hum’ or the clusters of phonemes that form single words, or the longer more varied sequences of conversational noise, these acoustic disturbances are not just conveyors of information but can act as triggers provoking an emotional response in the hearer. How they do this depends on the associations they have for us and these may be intensely personal, may be social and cultural and may in many cases depend entirely on which language we are hearing and thinking in.

Hearing the slang word ‘chillax’ for the first time (it has now become fairly well-known, even embarrassingly part of the linguistic repertoire of a former PM) would probably have a different effect on a teenager, who might have recognised the blending of ‘chill out’ and ‘relax’ from a grandparent more likely to hear ‘chilly’ and ‘axe.’

The fact that our reaction to the sound of words is culturally conditioned and not simply ‘natural’ can be proved by asking people to listen to and comment on words that they aren’t familiar with; invented words or terms from an unknown language. The words sranje, mierda, hovno and mist don’t seem to upset English speakers who are exposed to them for the first time. They are all synonyms of English sh**t in not too distant languages: Slovene, Spanish, Czech and Danish respectively. An old friend from France used to complain that her word for dog, chien, sounded nothing like any of the animals of that species, whereas the English word, she thought, suited exactly.

When we move from words to longer examples of intonation, rhythm and pitch, it can be a mixture of supposed familiarity – we recognise the same sounds from a different context such as baby-talk or comic exaggeration – and unfamiliarity – we don’t know what it means –that leads us to find the sound of the Dutch language funny for example.

Where other accents – the regional British variants among them – are concerned, studies have found that people react positively or negatively first according to how closely the accent resembles their own and secondly to its associations, usually which prominent figures (typically actors, newsreaders, footballers) employ it and in which contexts it has been encountered (so a Northern Irish accent, once evoking the language of the Troubles is now, like the Scottish Connery lilt, linked to actors who charm and don’t threaten.)

Asked in 2008 to nominate his favourite word, then mayoral candidate and Tory MP Boris Johnson selected ‘carminative’, teasing both in its obscurity and in that the word formed from these four sonorous syllables denotes a cure for flatulence. Three quite different, and differently resonant, syllables were chosen by French artist Loris Gréaud as the title of his solo exhibition at London’s ICA, part of a large-scale experimental multi-media project dealing in the interplay between rumour and fact, in hidden meanings and in transitions and interruptions. It’s no coincidence that the London installation and the project itself go by the name of CELLAR DOOR. The coming together – not for the first time – of these two unremarkable English words is part of a curious sequence of borrowings and allusions, a sort of underground tradition or urban legend that Gréaud is just the latest to tap into.

It was J R R Tolkien in 1955 who first suggested that ‘cellar door’ was one of the most beautiful, if not the most affecting combination of sounds in the English language. He described the phrase on two occasions as being intrinsically inspiring, and since then a series of writers have used Tolkien’s cue to fabricate a quite spurious history of references to cellar door, according to which an American opinion poll, the author H.L.Mencken and various Chinese and Japanese visitors have all, apparently independently, pronounced it the most beautiful sound in English. The cult movie Donnie Darko popularised the idea for a pop culture audience, asserting that of all the endless combination of words in all of history, this was the most beautiful. The film script attributed the claim to ‘a famous linguist’, but the director Richard Kelly in subsequent interviews namechecked, quite wrongly, Edgar Allan Poe.

We can’t be sure of the personal and cultural associations, conscious or unconscious, that led Tolkien to favour this particular collection of phonemes, apart from ‘the door of the cellar’ there are no sound-alikes in English other than, and of course this might be significant, celadon, a colour which is apparently a sort of pale willowy green (and is named, curiously, after the shepherd hero of a 17th century French romance) and celandine, the French-sounding name of two different species of flower. It seems to be a prerequisite that cellar door is pronounced in a donnish British RP accent rather than in a provincial burr or North American twang; although for me, and perhaps for Tolkien, too, a Welsh lilt might help reinforce its quasi-mythic pretensions.

Celador isn’t Welsh but is a real word in Spanish: pronounced with initial ‘th’ in Castilian Spanish, with ‘ts’ in the Americas historically it means ‘guardian of the bedchamber’, nowadays more prosaically it denotes a hospital orderly, a classroom supervisor or sometimes a prison guard. Spanish and Latin American friends tell me that for them the sound of the word is as humdrum as its modern meaning: it has no special resonance for them.

Although one explanation of the origins of language, known as the bow-wow theory, holds that all words started out as imitations of sounds found in nature, it’s clear that by now, apart from the obviously onomatopoeic like splash and plash and smash, sound and sense have become quite disconnected. The word voted the most beautiful in a British Council survey in 2004 was ‘mother’, for most of us redolent of tenderness, but downbeat and abrupt in terms of its component sounds. Conversely and perversely James Joyce had earlier proposed ‘cuspidor’, a nice noise, but a nasty receptacle.

The notion, though, that the sounds of a word might evoke certain feelings in the hearer, quite independently of its literal meaning, is a commonsense one, and linguists know the phenomenon variously as phonaesthetics, psychoacoustics or sound symbolism. But these emotional or aesthetic effects are not consistent and vary quite unpredictably across cultures and even among speakers who share a common language. ‘Mist’ which seems pleasant on the ear, means ‘crap’ in other Northern European languages. Stephen Fry may like the word ‘moist’, but it ranks high in lists of people’s unfavourites (‘phlegm’ and ‘panties’ even higher) and a teenager told me the other day that it’s now the most horribly offensive thing you can say in London street slang.

Playing of course on its literal sense, but helped by its new status as a linguistic talisman ‘cellar door’ has been used as the name of a host of wine merchants, wine bars and wine magazines and of a slasher movie, too.  A café in Guernsey, a London cabaret venue, a Jazz band, an Indie band, a metal band, a literary magazine have all adopted the title: spelled as in Spanish it’s the name of a well-known TV production company: a novel printing typeface, Kellermeister, turns out to be inspired by it, and dozens of Internet blogs contrive to work the phrase in somewhere in their mashups.

Why is it that there seems to be this need for a mantra, a magic set of sounds that can be constantly reinvoked? Is it those phonemes: that front vowel, sibilant and lateral, along with the allusion to something always hidden just beyond our field of vision that combine to give cellar door its unique charm? Whatever lies behind it (pun intended), and however impressive Gréaud’s work actually is, I’m afraid that I’m quite immune to the two words in question: for me ‘seller’ only evokes the housing crisis at the time of writing, and door rhymes with ‘sore’, and ‘poor’ – and most tellingly of all – with ‘bore’.

 

* I have not yet had time to digest this very interesting paper from July 2017, but here is the link…

https://peerj.com/articles/3466/

 

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BUY-TO-LEAVE

Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…

 

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In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.

25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.

The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.

Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.

Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.

 

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At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.

 

You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries: 

Community Cohesion

There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)

http://www.jargon-buster-directory.com/development-regeneration-jargon.php

 

…and the latest from Battersea here, courtesy the Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/22/inside-battersea-power-station-everest-real-estate-test-case/

 

 

NEURODIVERSITY – and NEUROLEADERSHIP

The jargon and new terminology I collected for my Bizwords column used to highlight exciting trends in marketing and management, often featuring versions of the ‘hero-boss’ or ‘digital leader’. Many more recent buzzwords relate to complex issues affecting social, cultural as well as commercial stakeholders. Here are examples of both tendencies in one short article…

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In the last few years society has, thankfully, come to focus increasingly on the needs of those individuals categorised as neurodiverse. This umbrella term, dating from the 1990s, refers to differences in neurocognitive functioning among humans and encompasses conditions such as dyscalculia, dyspraxia and dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), bipolarity and types of autism, including Asperger’s syndrome, extending to take in epileptics, anxiety sufferers and savants. ‘Neurodiversity’ describes both the spectrum of conditions and a philosophical stance (the neurodiversity paradigm) which claims that the ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning of the neurotypical (NT) is a social, not a scientific construct and that the issues around the so-called neurodivergent, especially the inequalities they may be subject to, should be approached in the same way as gender, ethnicity or cultural issues. The noun has thus become the label for activist movements working for social justice for ND minorities.

The business world, having first adopted inclusion and anti-discrimination strategies to cater for the neurodiverse, has come more recently to appreciate the special benefits of employing individuals whose unusual attributes can help to enhance and transform an organisation. As Charlotte Rogers wrote in Marketing Week in May 2017, ‘From leading new innovations and helping marketers achieve true diversity of thought, to enriching the wider company culture, having a neurodiverse workforce makes strong business sense.’ Harvard Business Review in the same month referred to neurodiversity as ‘a competitive advantage.’

Those working with ND colleagues often make simplistic assumptions, both negative (‘if you are dyslexic you won’t be able to handle complex language’) and positive (‘if you have autism you will probably be highly numerate’) which need to be questioned. ND employees may – or may not – have developed insights, tactics, skills and forms of resilience that are novel, exciting and useful: those on the autistic spectrum can for example be capable of focused attention to detail beyond a ‘normal’ capacity, be hyperarticulate or possess enhanced memory or spatial awareness. Equally they may exhibit behaviour that seems eccentric, they can sometimes struggle to empathise and need ‘buddy’ programmes and mentoring to enable them to integrate socially within a conventional organisational culture.

A related n-word, neuroleadership, marking a ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ tendency in transformative management, began trending nearly a decade ago. At the time it was defined somewhat crudely as ‘managing the mental wellbeing of fellow-workers.’ In a business environment where toxic organisations are said to foster emotional contagion, therapists and counsellors began selling mental fitness programmes, brain-based coaching and highlighting the senior manager’s responsibility to promote mind-based performance. Self-styled futurists began in the early noughties to posit a post-informational neurosociety, and drawing on developments in neuroscience and psychology, the first world NeuroLeadership conference, organised by US thought leaders David Rock (who coined the term) and Al Ringleb, was held in 2007. Participants in this still-fashionable sector (they have claimed ‘the birth of a new business discipline’) refer to the neural challenges facing decision-makers, priorities such as moral cognition, cultural intelligence, and emotional regulation, and are fond of psychobabble like ‘foiling amygdala hijack’ (the amygdala being the brain’s anxiety switch) and ‘reclaiming the fire after the burnout’. Critics also point to the danger that these approaches cross the boundaries between the professional and the private spheres and lend themselves to quasi-scientific quackery.

In debates on neurodiversity and in the marketing of neuroleadership, language plays a crucial role. Not only in defining and encoding new ideas and new practices but in embedding or uncovering, through discourse, the hidden prejudices and the complex power relationships that exist in organisations and in the wider society. ND activists want to ensure that variations in the human genome and resulting differences in the nervous systems of individuals are no longer spoken of as ‘pathological’, no longer defined simply (as they still are) as ‘disorders’. Colloquial expressions like ‘differently wired’ can come to have special resonance, and ‘politically correct’ formulations such as ‘differently abled’ become essential to a more nuanced awareness of the subject.

Autistic UK has more information on neurodiversity, including notes on terminology and definitions:

https://autisticuk.org/neurodiversity/

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A term whose time has come?

I wrote about the intriguing notion of the Anglosphere in 2006. In a pre-election, perhaps pre-Brexit phase in the UK’s collective experience, the term surfaces again as the title of a British Academy conference.

Here are my jottings from eleven years ago…

ANGLOSPHERE

When writing about language, there’s a word I constantly invoke – it’s a useful shorthand version of the cumbersome “areas where English is the dominant language”. But this expression (apparently first used in writing by science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in 1995) may turn out to be the defining term of the 21st century’s global order. The word is Anglosphere, denoting not just a group of English-speaking nations, but a sphere – or set of interconnected spheres – of influence (Sinosphere and Hispanosphere have been employed subsequently and similarly).

According to US businessman and technologist James C Bennett, it “implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures.”

Primary among these are individualism, openness and the honouring of contracts. Just doing business in English doesn’t qualify you. You have to have internalised the hidden system of behaviours and assumptions that Anglos implicitly embrace, thereby gaining membership in what Bennett calls a network civilisation or network commonwealth. Other fashionable buzzwords associated with the phenomenon are collectivity, commonality and commensurability.

At the rarefied level of international politics, Anglosphere can mean a geopolitical conversation for insiders only. In terms of innovation in technology, law and commerce, it encourages pathfinder cultures to cooperate seamlessly. To some anti-globalisers and multiculturalists this smacks of ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism and linguicism (language-based racism), or at the very least a shared superiority complex on the part of largely rightwing commentators. Part of the potency of the idea is certainly that it offers Brits, and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, too, the prospect of world domination, alongside the US, and despite the looming presence of China and India. Others protest that this is all simply stating the obvious – that English speakers communicate easily with one another. But perhaps they are missing the essential point: the real potential of the Anglosphere lies not just in instantaneous information-sharing but in the millions of informal, often unnoticed relationships and collaborations that amount to a much more unified power-bloc than any artificially created entity – the EU springs to mind.

 

And here are details of the conference in question…

http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/anglosphere-and-its-others-english-speaking-peoples-changing-world-order