Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rab C. Nesbitt excepted, it has become quite difficult to infer much from people’s appearance. In these democratically dressed and coiffed times, we usually have to wait until people start to speak before we get a bead on them. Voice has become the best, and often only, signifier we can rely on. A flat vowel here, a glottal stop there, a hint of sibilance about an ‘s’ — ahah: northern, possibly Yorkshire, probably lower-middle-class-ish background and, going by the ‘s’, gay.
We make such judgments with great confidence. And, it transpires, little justification — it’s the great insight of this study of human conversation that our voice-interpreting skills, on which we often set much store, are actually pretty poor. Take our aural gaydar — that typically has a 60 per cent success rate, i.e. not much better than chance. We are also very ungifted at detecting when someone is lying — we rely on tells, such as an averted gaze, that aren’t tells at all. (Conversely, it turns out that deception is something many of us are really good at and learn early. Ninety per cent of us can lie by the age of four, and just about all of us by the age of eight.)
Our accent-decoders turn out to fare little better. Britain is an island rich in accent variety, with a discernible shift in pronunciation occurring every 25 miles or so. Well, discernible to linguists, but not, alas, to the rest of us. We listen to each other with cloth ears, identifying each other’s voices with the vaguest and crudest of categories — northern, American, posh, that level of precision.
Nebulous though they are, Cox points out, these categories can conjure up very strong but actually preposterous stereotypes. I speak from experience because I have a Scottish accent and live in London — so I try to bear in mind that often I won’t be heard properly, not with all those bagpipes and the whoops and skirls of kilted Highlanders who’ve suddenly appeared around me. As good luck would have it, my accent is middle-class and east-coast rather than west-coast, otherwise I’d sound like a Glaswegian — poor, drunk and prone to sectarian violence. In happy reality, I sound like I should be wearing a stethoscope — a bit dull maybe, but trustworthy, solid and dependable. The flakiest of functioning adults, I offer myself up as Exhibit A to prove how misleading that vocal-identification system of ours can be.
The heavier the accent, the stronger the categorisation — and the decrease, Cox adds, in perceived trustworthiness. Plus, I would add, just about every other positive characteristic. The treatment of regional accents seems to me to be particularly ghastly in English. The categories of other languages are just as vague as ours but the accents themselves don’t appear to be treated with scorn and derision as they so often are in English. Things are improving — more accents are becoming more accepted, so that, for example, one of the country’s leading voiceover actors is David Morrissey, who has a soft Liverpudlian accent.
But then there’s the plight of poor Steph McGovern at the BBC to consider — mocked and condemned for her mild Teesside twang. Mind you, Steph would have had almost no chance of any broadcasting career at all if she had come from Birmingham. For no valid linguistic reason whatsoever, Brummie remains by far Britain’s most loathed accent. In one test, Brummie scored worse than silence.
These are murky waters, hardly charted by sociolinguistics, so, alas, Trevor Cox veers away from them. By day, he’s a professor of ‘acoustic engineering’, and his interests and knowledge lie elsewhere, in the mechanics of phonetic production and especially in the technology of voice reproduction, with most of the second half of the book being devoted to computerisation in one form or another. This is never less than interesting — and now I know that lots of people say good morning to their Alexa, and that some of those people have proposed marriage to her. But I could have done with more on purely human conversation and the mechanics of that, rather than the airier speculations about a talking AI and suchlike, whose air does begin to acquire the look of padding.
But even including the several chapters about talking computers, this is a continually interesting and instructive account of our conversational abilities, and a much needed exposé of our remarkable incapacity to infer anything from each other’s talk.