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Language can be beautiful.  But from whence does the beauty sprout?

Certainly words themselves, and morphemes too, have the potential for aesthetic grace.  Perhaps the most affecting among these are those collections of words that display the power of language by utilizing its potency as a rubric for thought to jar the reader out of their conventional patterns of “linear thinking.”  Shakespeare, Zhuangzi, Li Po, Rumi, Proust, Joyce, Calvino, Ryokan, Chekov, up to Burroughs, Borges, Charles Wright, Dick and countless others past and present, living and long or recently dead.

But one of the first tenets of linguistics goes “speech is primary, writing is secondary.”  So what is it that gives those word collections their beauty?  Words are collections of morphemes– the smallest syllabic units in a language that have linguistic meaning (ie: smallest –> “small” “-est”) bound together to have some larger meaning or idea.  So is the aesthetic wonder of language only in the ideas that those arranged sounds and gestures convey?

If so, then why do humans en masse listen to pop music in languages they don’t understand, or listen to instrumental music for that matter?  That would suggest that there is some intrinsic beauty in the acoustic elements of voice and sound itself.  I am compelled to believe this, listen to the pop music of the Cocteau Twins or many operatics, where single syllables, devoid of any morphemic meaning, are stretched ad infinitum into abstract wonderments.  So does that mean that voice, the various bilabial/labial/interdental/alveolar/palatal/velar/glottal utterances the three-piece band that is the voice box, throat and mouth can shape, are synonymous with the elements of instrumental music?

So since the voice can be used as an instrument, devoid of real morphemes in its “lyrics” to a piece of music, that would mean those sort of vocalizations are devoid of any sort of “higher” idea to the mind.  But not entirely so, a wordless cry, depending on intonation, can also convey complex emotions to a listener– the sustained pitches of a Christian choir that replicate an organ instrument or synthesize a soundtrack for an afterlife or both, the stangled yells of James Brown dense with connotation: energy spiritual, sexual, frustrated, liberated, or listening to the lyrics of any song or poem in a language foreign to us.

So is the music of the voice beholden to the (mathematical) laws of tonal music?  Who’s imitating who there?  Can a musical instrument emulate the complex nature of morphemic language (vocoders don’t count)?  Must they in order to convey complex meaning?  Example: Yoruba/Wolof talking drums from West Africa can serve as a form of very complex non-verbal communication.  While the altering pitches supposedly emulate the tonal properties of several West African languages, they are not just a simple facsimile of them (if such a thing would be possible for even as complex an instrument as the talking drum).  Traditionally, people would have their normal spoken name as well as a “talking drum name.”

So in brief, the generalized questions:
– How intrinsic is language to the aesthetics of human voice?

– How much meaning can “meaningless” voice sounds convey outside the rules and conventions of a language?

– If non-morphemic sound (instrumental or vocal) can convey context from one human to another (“indexical signs”), where does language factor into that sort of exchange?

– Are musical vocals emulating musical instruments, or do musical instruments emulate language?

– Not counting simple environmental indexical sign sounds, can non-verbal sounds convey complex meaning to the human mind without being an acoustic facsimile (vocoder/digitized voice) or coda (morse code) for a standard language?

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April 2007
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