Natural-Sounding Speech (Issue 90)

What is natural-sounding speech, and why is it so valued? Raymond Williams’ discussion of ‘nature’ in his Keywords was fraught enough in 1976 before waves of ecological concern complicated it. ‘Speaking in your mind’s ear’ was this magazine’s engaging strapline for many years. But unless you have heard the poet speak, or recognise a persona they create, you will use your own voice, and we all sound natural to ourselves. Before the first recorded, unscripted, unrehearsed conversations, less than a century ago, who knows how natural speech sounded? Diarists wrote out exchanges from memory, and while many novelists’ characters ring true, some are caricatures, and all are part of a meta-rhetorical scheme. 

Much as the Augustans prized casuistry they probably didn’t speak in heroic couplets, and we have no way of judging the diction of Elizabethan or Restoration dramatists. Throw in the vagaries of the great vowel shift, a widespread change in pronunciation thought to have lurched across England from 1400 to 1700, and how can we tell whose prosody was the least laboured? Did Milton sound more natural than Shakespeare? By contrast 500 years from now there will – fire and flood permitting – be clouds of recordings to go by. They will show when a rising intonation crept in and when everyone started answering questions with ‘so’. Who will survive to be interested is another matter.

As Keats said, in effect, the more designed a poem seems, the more we bristle. We may secretly want to be persuaded, but that persuasion has to be painless. Michelangelo’s David – commissioned to stop an expensive lump of marble becoming a white elephant – stands there in his pectoral perfection so lifelike that we accept his anatomical distortions (those we notice) as artistic decisions. The pinched flesh of Bernini’s Daphne is so convincing we have to pinch ourselves to realise it is marble. Because computers can achieve these effects for today’s sculptors, roughness is now seen as more natural. “I wanted to make sure that my hand was still present,” said Kara Walker, standing under a huge crane in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, of her rough-hewn epic, Fons Americanus (2019). She still had to have the big idea though.

Likewise, word-processing tools and ‘creative writing’ apps (essentially glorified thesauruses) may help writers up to a point, but no algorithm can match a writer’s ear: the ability to listen, and then read, like someone else. 

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