The Power of Linguistics

Don't take your ability to speak for granted.

One of the last few books by Tom Wolfe, the masterful author of such best-sellers as The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, was titled The Kingdom of Speech, and was a critical evaluation of the current state of understanding of this most necessary capability which separates man from all other species.

Wolfe was careful to explain that no one has ever linked human intelligence – that leap from stimulus/response to initiator of original action in the field of communication – to the evolution of the species. Many have tried and failed, but that most annoying of 'intellectuals,' Noam Chomsky, receives the full force of Wolfe's wit.

Wolfe's point: somehow a piece is missing; somehow we skip this step. And yet, our species reigns supreme over all others, and all human populace can communicate with one another with facile, effortless ease, translating from one language to another. There are even examples of indigenous groups who have developed languages that are completely independent from other tongues, thus proving that language is a capability innate to humanity.

And this whole study of linguistics and speech has burgeoned into a branch of human development which may be studied as an almost closed science independent of others. Of all our senses, we tend to relate vision and speech/hearing in a category separate from touch, feel, smell, hunger and other senses. We do this because our brains are structured this way. Sight and hearing are survival tools. They are present in even the most primitive of organisms.

In the 19th century, people oohed and ahhed over the absolute miracles that Helen Keller wrought. Gallaudet University advertises itself as "There is no other place like this in the world…" We have made enormous strides in the moving of deaf and hearing-impaired/speech impaired individuals into the mainstream. Yet few know much about the profession of hearing/speech and the numerous individuals who perform their duties mostly unsung.

During the 20th century, our society began devising ways of analyzing speech and correcting auditory deficiencies. We do these things to solve numerous problems within the population: deafness in all its forms, speech malformation, and other similar maladies. We do this because we can. The whole realm of speech and hearing improvement is a sort of final frontier.

These things are related. Speech/hearing/swallowing seem to be parts of a process of mentality that the human race has developed beyond other species.

This author was initiated into the intricate world of surviving while swallowing during a recent hospital visit, and that little tip of the enormous iceberg revealed itself to be an intricate and involved system of study all its own. People spend their lives monitoring the way we swallow.

It turns out that this tiny aspect of our daily lives as a great deal of influence over many things that we take for granted. Dysphagia is the technical term for difficulty in swallowing. This includes several different types of disorders which includes 'globus,' which is the sensation of a lump in the throat.

These disorders and maladies are all very common in their range from extremely mild infrequent incidences to debilitating conditions which impair swallowing entirely. Most of us experience the mild form from time to time, and dismiss it as a normal occurrence. And, for most of us, it is.

But for some, dysphagia is a debilitating disorder.

Most times, the initial test for dysphagia is performed on the sly, with a patient handed a glass of water, and then observed as he swallows. The skilled administrator of the 'water swallows test' will then proceed with further testing if needed, or mention nothing to the patient if everything is copacetic. Clever devils, those Speech Specialists!

And then, after observing a potential problem or disorder, a speech/hearing/swallowing specialist may be brought in as a consultant. The maladies are known as Aphasia, Dysphagia, and a couple of other associated terms.

From Wikipedia:

The most common symptom of esophageal dysphagia is the inability to swallow solid food, which the patient will describe as 'becoming stuck' or 'held up' before it either passes into the stomach or is regurgitated. Pain on swallowing or odynophagia is a distinctive symptom that can be highly indicative of carcinoma, although it also has numerous other causes that are not related to cancer.

The disorder ranges from simple swallowing pain to the above description of the presence of throat cancer. This writer's in-law relatives include a family of women who develop a  hoarseness and a halting of speech that becomes more severe as these ladies have aged, with the voices being rendered into a thin croak when they reach their mid 60s. It is a family trait that goes back several generations, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

This writer's own recent experience was a laboratory-based series of tests that consisted of the swallowing of various substances – water, gelatin-thickened water, pudding, and crackers, all laced with dye markers – to mark the progress of the  substances (we won't put any of this stuff in the category of food) on its way into  our digestive tract. We were 'on-camera' during the exercise, and the progress of our efforts was duly recorded. This process is called Video Fluoroscopic Swallowing Exam (VFSE) – scroll to bottom of the referenced article.

Those rather cryptic images are all of a swallow and its after effects. The hospital gave some very  lame excuses for not releasing the author's own examples.

But the x-rays were interesting in that they showed substantial amounts of food not being part of the mass that was swallowed. It remained lodged in the upper part of the throat, and numerous swallows were required to return the throat to its clean, pristine condition.

The most charitable thing that can be said about a tongue is that it is funny-looking. The x-ray version of a tongue in action is a wonder to behold; the aimless meanderings, the flapping of speech, and the machinations of swallowing, revealed by x-ray, are all normally hidden by the teeth, gums, and lips. Thankfully so!

After this x-ray analysis, the speech therapist returned onto the scene, and we endured several days of rather embarrassing calisthenics involving the offending tongue making every effort to track the lingual moves that the rather pretty therapist performed.

The exercises were surprisingly difficult and required a certain amount of concentration on the actual mechanics of their execution, but even advanced age cannot purify the thoughts of a dirty mind.

The rigors of the exercises actually left the tongue muscles sore after the first day, rendering the next day's exercises a good bit more difficult. Thank God the mirthful reaction to this series of exercises was kept in check, albeit with difficulty.

So the Kingdom of Speech begins with a funny looking organ that we all know and love. It is a marker of our individuality in its sound, a source of constant pleasure as we quaff our favorite brew, and the means by which we propel ourselves into love affairs and fistfights. We are adept at its use at best and use it to make ourselves fools at its worst.

It is the single most evident mark of our common humanity.

And it is the absolute determinant of our dominion over all other species.

Our kingdom of speech gives us a form for our thoughts – a way to group them, analyze them. Dogs, cats, nor chimpanzees have the capability of preserving thoughts – even if they have them – because there is no order. And the striving for excellence in our speech illustrates the deep-seated demand for perfection that we all share. Speakers of non-standard idiomatic forms are even more particular in the precise selection of phrase and intonation of word because the nuance becomes the carrier of information. Our development of speech imposes order to our thoughts; it was the progenitor of all our recording of 'history,' and of the markings and symbology which allow mathematical analysis.

What's more, speech allows collective thought and analysis, as one mind picks up where another mind leaves off.  Animals can communicate through action, scent, and other senses, but none is so detailed and potentially permanent as the word.

The use of speech not only separates man from ape, it has allowed the development of civilization and all of the good that brings.  Yet it is so much a part of ourselves that it's easy not to realize its fundamental importance - until, for a time, it is lost.

Let's hear it for the word!

Thomas Anderson is a multi-state registered architect and an ex-Air Force electronic technician, who is a keen observer of the human condition.  Read other articles by Thomas Anderson or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

I am continually amazed at the disastrous speech patterns and the inability to spell words properly. Even of the most educated people. The English language is under assault by first, laziness and second by the so called do gooders of the left that want to take out everything meaningful in the language.

January 15, 2019 5:01 PM
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