Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lost Voices Of History

Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, and he also had a great voice. Since he was a celebrity who died in 1970, he was on TV a lot and you can have a listen to his voice on Youtube. If you hear a voice in your head when you read, as I do but as not everyone does, then I recommend reading Russell in Russell’s voice. It’s fun! With a lot of great philosophers, of course, we don’t have this luxury. There aren’t any recordings of their voices and nobody knows what they sounded like. This seems to me an avoidable shame.

People will presumably continue to do Michael Caine impressions for at least a while after Michael Caine dies, and my understanding is that most people’s Michael Caine impression owes at least as much to copying other people’s impressions as to copying Caine himself. That’s why they all sound the same but they don’t sound like Michael Caine. The Michael Caine impression voice is easy to do, and Michael Caine’s voice is hard to do, and here we are.

It seems to me that the Michael Caine impression voice could be preserved indefinitely, even if all the recordings of his voice and the impression voice were destroyed and no more were ever produced. People would copy each other, and hundreds of years into the future people would still be doing impressions of Michael Caine. And that would be a fine thing.

At least as fine a thing would be if this had actually happened with historical public figures: people had done impressions of them for the amusement of people familiar with the original, the way the impression sounded had become common knowledge, the ability to do the impression had become part of every self-respecting person’s conversational repertoire, and then 470 years on we were all still doing impressions of Henry VIII.

I can’t think of anyone this has happened with in the Anglosphere. All the impressions we do nowadays are of people we have recordings of. Perhaps there are or have been communities who did preserve their ancestors’ voices over the centuries in this way; if you know of any then tell us about it in the comments. It would seem strange to me if that hadn’t happened, but English speakers seem not to have preserved any, so maybe that’s how things are.

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