“Vowels are the most illuminated letters in the alphabet. Vowels are the colors and souls of poetry and speech. (1976)”
“Leaves as vowels, whispers of words like a breath of net. Leaves are vowels, I sweep them up hoping to find the combinations I am looking for.” (Smith, 2015)
― Patti Smith
Vowels, eh? Clearly a fan, the great Patti Smith captures in two short sentence their importance for adding colour and emotion to the voice in a 1976 Penthouse (!) interview. Later, in her 2015 memoir M Train; she explains just how vital creative vowel combination choice by songwriters is to create the mood. Something, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones elaborates on in his autobiography Life. The song writing method is called vowel movement …
“Many times you don’t know what the word is, but you know the word has got to contain this vowel, this sound. You can write something that’ll look really good on paper, but it doesn’t contain the right sound. You start to build the consonants around the vowels. There’s a place to go ooh and there’s a place to go daah. And if you get it wrong, it sounds like crap. It’s not necessarily that it rhymes with anything at the moment, and you’ve got to look for the rhyming word too, but you know there’s a particular vowel involved.”
– Keith Richards (Life, 2010)
In speech, we talk specifically about vowel sounds. Not just the ‘school’ vowels A-E-I-O-U’, but the sounds we make and hear when the shape of the vocal cavity changes and these vowel sounds are combined with each other. There are 25i.
So, what makes a vowel a vowel?
For most of us, we only really know what we have been told in school and haven’t seen the need to explore it further. The official classification of a vowel sound is
“ a sound which is emitted through a free opening of the mouth. It is not stopped or hindered by the organs of articulation” (Luck, 1975)
What that means to you and me is that vowels are free sounds. Nothing in the mouth stops the sound.
This freedom is what we use to weave in our emotion and expression. The room the vowel sound makes, allows the speaker to slow down or speed up; and use pitch and inflection. So many times I’ve heard directors ask presenters and actors to slow down or speed up on certain words.
How? How can you say a word slowly?
Use the vowels.
Take for example the word ‘tack’ – it’s impossible to say the consonants ‘t’ or ‘ck’ slowly , happily or with sadness. But by sustaining the ‘a’, we can slow the pace; pitching up on it can make the sound happier and conversely lowering the pitch on the vowel makes it sound darker and more sombre. If we say the line “Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away’ and firstly try clip the vowels as short as you can and keep the lips and jaw as small as you can – the meaning is lost and the effect is cold. Now use the freedom of the vowels to open and push the lips and jaw freely to express the depth of the emotion intended in this line. You can hear instantly the warmth and the emotion.
We need vowels to change the temperature and intention of our spoken words.
They express our humanity and our souls. When we smile, we can hear it as the lips widen and the vowel sounds different. Vowels in the same words can sound different based on the subtleties of how we feel each time we say the word. The emotion we’re feeling. Take the line ‘Where have you been” and try to firstly deliver the line as though you’ve just met a long lost dear friend. Then, deliver it as though it’s 3am you’ve been waiting for a wayward teenager to return home. Hear that? You’re using the vowels sounds to convey the two different emotions changing pace, pitch, power and inflection accordingly. Note specifically the pitch differences in the word ‘you’ when we feel warm towards the recipient (higher) and when we feel anger (lower).
And these tonal subtleties are the very reasons why no AI voice recognition system will ever truly sound authentic or pick up on sarcasm (a word of warning though…whisper that last line. Since reading my first draft aloud, Alexa’s been giving me the silent treatment…)
Maura Currie 2021
[i] 25 Vowel sounds: /i/ as in hid; /i:/ as in heed; /e/ as in head; /æ/ as in had; /ʌ/ as in hut; /ɒ/ as in hot; /a:/ as in hard; /ɔ:/ as in hoard; /u:/ as in hoot; /ʊ / as in hood; /ʒ:/as in heard; /ə/ as in china; /ei/as in eight; /ai/ as in ride; /ɔɪ/ as in toil; /əʊ/ as in coast; /ɑʊ/ as in how; /ɪə/as in pier; /ɛə/ as in pair; /ʊə/ as in poor; /aɪə/ as in higher; /ɔɪə/ as in employer; /əʊə/ as in lower; /əʊə/ as in our; /eɪə/ as in layer
#vowels #emotionaltone #speech #speakwithconfidence #speechanddramascotland