Unreal Nature

April 26, 2014

Leaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… It is because they operate within a subtle field of probability, which they themselves affect.

This is from Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and other Vocalizations by Steven Connor (2014):

… The class of sounds known as ‘plosives,’ and typified by the sounds of English b and p, have the opposite function [of m]. For, by temporally retarding the current of air and then releasing it in a little puff, pop or explosion, plosives seem to suggest some sudden and even violent separation of outer from inner. Where the m pleasantly or excitingly maintains tension in equilibrium, p and b produce a sudden release of tension through an abrupt differential of pressure.

… If speech can be reduced to the alternation of flows and stops — the distinction between vowels and consonants being the most familiar form of this contrast — then the plosive provides the most forceful and definitive of all these forms of stoppage. One may suggest that the general force possessed by the plosive is that of creating definition, through a narrowing of focus. This constriction is particularly in evidence in words that imitate the compressed sound of words that seem to imitate exact units of time — the beep, pip, or bleep. In a word like bit, the plosive obediently chops up the stream of speech, and even more emphatically with the word but, which can indeed appear to butt in to the flow of meaning, blocking or redirecting it.

… Margaret Magnus suggests that the field of reference of English p may be differentially related to the violent expulsion of the b. B is pronounced by ‘blowing’ up the mouth, making a ‘bulge’ and then letting the air ‘burst’ out. P is pronounced by ‘pushing’ which produces a ‘puffing’ up and ‘pouring’ out. The result in p is ‘not an explosion but a more precise “placement”.’

… Here, as in many other places in this book, it may seem as though I am supposing that certain meanings are somehow packed or locked into particular sounds, such that p must always imply pinprick particularity. But, of course, the very fact that p is such a common sound in English means that it will be found in a very large range of semantic contexts, and doing a great number of different kinds of job, most of which derive no assistance from the putative tendency of p to denote precision. If there is any plausibility (from plaudire, to clap the hands, with an approvingly plosive sound) in the meanings I have made out for the plosive, or the sibilant, or the nasal, as it may be, it is not because the sounds are possessed by these meanings. It is because they operate within a subtle field of probability, which they themselves affect. The fact that there may be quite a few familiar words available to a speaker or hearer in which particularity seems to be associated with the plosive makes it more likely that such effects will be selectively amplified in use and in analysis. This does not in the least prevent p being able to be used in other contexts and with other meanings entirely — of poetry and pleasure, or pus and puke, for example, in which ideas of precision and particularity may no longer seem to be in the picture. It is just that we will, no, steady on, may be more likely to pick out those patternings in which picking-out or patterning seem to be the issue. It is not a matter of meaning, but of leaning.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.

-Julie

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