Transliteracy and the Voice: Chinese, Hollywood Talkies, and Reading Poetry Aloud

animated gif popup - click here if you can't see it In recent weeks a few things have got me thinking about the role of the voice in transliteracy. I've been taking a beginner's class in Mandarin, and therefore have been introduced to the fascinating intonations of the language. As you probably already know, a word can have different meanings in Chinese depending on the way it is pronounced, so this means my group spends a lot of time vocalising the sounds. It is many years since I have been required to chant aloud with the rest of the class, and I'm finding it really enjoyable, even though much of what I'm learning drains away the minute the session ends. Right now I'm not so much learning Mandarin as experiencing it. I've never been to China (am going next year) but the physical act of stretching my vocal chords in different ways to pronounce the language feels almost like a kind of psychic travel on its own, a way to inhabit a different culture just through learning how to say and hear its sounds.

This reminds me of a recent seminar organised by my colleagues in Film Studies when Mark Glancy, of Queen Mary University, London, spoke about British Audiences and Hollywood Talkies. He pointed out that radio and then the cinema brought American voices to the ears of the British working class for the first time, and that they didn't like the sounds at all. Think about it. Ordinary British people who have never left the town they grew up in, and often never met a foreigner, suddenly had a local cinema and after several years of silent movies were confronted with the first American talkies. Most had never heard an American accent before, and they hated it. Furthermore, they couldn't understand what the actors were saying. The words might be a kind of 'English' but the intonation and accent made them incomprehensible and ugly. The New York accent of silent movie star May McAvoy when she appeared in the talkie The Jazz Singer was excruciating to British ears, and of course US audiences had similar reactions to UK actors. But there was another interesting effect too. At least the US actors did not have the posh tones of the UK actors, and in that way the talkies offered a  democratised world in which those in power were not the usual British aristocracy. And gradually, on both sides of the Atlantic, cinema audiences became transliterate in learning how to understand the same language pronounced in different ways.

The third example I want to discuss is a session I taught recently to the postgraduate students on the Masters in Creative Technologies in the IOCT at DMU. The topic was Humanities Research, and I decided it would be interesting to give these very transdisciplinary students (whose first degrees were mostly in Computer Science) a taste of a traditional English lecture. I found just the thing: Meyer H. Abrams, Class of 1916 Professor of English Emeritus at Cornell University, delivering an address in 2007 at the National Humanities Center 'On Reading Poems Aloud'. (If you would like the same experience the students had, listen to roughly minutes 6 through 21.) As per tradition, I gave them each a print copy of the poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats so they could follow the reading. I really wasn't sure how they would take this, and I don't think they knew either. There was some apprehension in the room as I started the video. But soon they were entranced. They loved it! And afterwards we talked about the physicality of reading poetry aloud, and the pleasure of memorising and reciting poetry. Inviting them to then read Keats aloud seemed like a step too far, but later I regretted not asking them to do it because they were so into the idea I think they would have enjoyed it. There is nothing like putting all your energy into reading a poem aloud with full gusto. Well, next year perhaps. But it made me think that there is an opportunity here – Geek Poetry Readings. Present any poem, as powerfully as you like, and preferably from memory. More literacies here – memory, enunciation, speech, and emotion.

So, in the past few weeks I've been thinking about the sounds of transliteracy as languages move between cultures and media, and of how hard it is sometimes to understand something just because it sounds different or is presented differently. And of course today with apps like Skype and most recently Audioboo, not to mention Ribbit which translates voice messages into text messages, we are encountering the voice in new ways. But I do think that, unlike the movie audiences of the 1930s, we may now be more equipped to push our way through difference towards quicker understanding.

The image at the top is an animated gif – I hope it works, if not try clicking on the blank space – from Quiplash!: Traditional Chinese Character for "East" [snag; animated GIF showing proper order of strokes]

2 thoughts on “Transliteracy and the Voice: Chinese, Hollywood Talkies, and Reading Poetry Aloud

  1. Sue – This is a really interesting post and I love the idea of you sitting in class intoning Mandarin. But the idea that US talkies offered a ‘democratisation’ of speech doesn’t really add up – Americans display a huge range of accents in their movies, all of which are indicators of class as well as region. You only have to look at that clip from ‘Singing in the Rain’ again – the actress is betrayed by her uneducated, working class accent! Kate

  2. Yes, that’s true, but I was thinking about democratisation as far as English audiences went — they wouldn’t be able to spot class differences in American accents, but they would have seen a difference between them and posh English voices. That was Mark Glancy’s point as I understood it.

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