Sometime Behave So Strangely

Speech has both pitch and rhythm. It is not, however, singing. Except for sometimes. And in my opinion, all the time.

As with most opinions, the idea isn’t new. Dr. Diana Deutsch accidentally discovered that speech begins to sound as if it is sung after several repetitions. She called this an illusion, but I’m not so sure. Deutsch’s illusion is known as “Sometimes behave so strangely” because that was part of the sentence she was recording when, heard on a loop, it becomes a clearly heard melody. It begins, “The sounds that appear to you are not only different from those that are present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.” Here a small class listens to her say the sentence, then only the phrase. So to explain my premise, the music is there all along. Unlike the many optical illusions which do use neurological tricks.

Deutsch is a psychologist studying the brain as it reacts to music. Other scientists explore the anthropological connections. This article in Futurity takes what seems like the opposite position: we like music because it sounds like our voices.

But enough science. On to experience. There were three.

First, at the temple a few weeks ago, someone was struggling to pronounce a complex Spanish name. Frustrated, he asked the woman he was helping to say the name. The contrast was startling. Not only was it made beautiful; it was made music. She smiled, and there were tears in her eyes. This short article from a Stanford grad is light-hearted and explains formation of names in Spanish cultures. This YouTube features three young women—from the US, Mexico, and Spain—talking about names. The American is trying, and her chief concern is that Spanish goes by so fast! It’s instructive, but at time mark 4:01, she says, “It sounds like a song almost…” They are having fun, no tears involved.

Second, that same day, I helped another woman, in Russian. She had been able to listen to a translation of what she was doing but at a certain point, she needed to make responses in her language to questions in English. Although I don’t speak Russian, I can read the pronunciations. It was an unusual experience, hearing two languages at different purpose points. Russian names also have a formula for formation, as did the Spanish ones. This young woman explains.

Third, the next evening, I attended an iftar, the meal at which Muslims break their daily fast in the holy month of Ramadan. Although the event was at a church building in Waxahachie (in the so-called Cultural Hall, a basketball gym actually), the food was provided by a group of Turkish friends from Richardson. The timing had to be precise, after sundown. The prayer at that time is called a dua. This example is a call to prayer, quite beautiful because it’s set in a remote park in Australia. And 14.5 million viewers. That evening, a member of their community offered a dua that I can’t replicate via YouTube. I couldn’t find an accurate example. When I asked someone I was sitting by if it was a song, he said no, not really. But as with speech, our current topic, there was surely pitch (melody) and rhythm. Furthermore, it was physical, with the human form, the person, coming alive to the music with vibrations from the bones of the skull, the reciting person holding his hand to his head. It was transfixing, with no words from my limited skill to describe. But do listen to the link above.

I’m wondering if my theory of language as music (melody and rhythm) may prove helpful to memorize. Vast, long, epic poems were sung/spoken/performed. Here is Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf, 10 minutes of which I used to share with world lit students. It begins at 1:40 with the word “HwÆt!” which means Listen! And other possible attention getters. In fact, come to think of it, I may need to start singing things…a lot. For memory purposes only.

Notice, too, how often commentators will get the response “Listen” as the first word an interviewee will say. And then the music begins…