Psycho Babble

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By Jessica Love


 

Say end dog is teen.

In the game Mad Gab, players are required to read aloud phrases like this, playing around with speed, stressing, and sing-songedness until their teammates are able to translate the nonsense phrase into one that actually make sense. I say that it’s up to the teammates to guess correctly because it doesn’t take long to realize that the person actually reading the phrase is at a huge disadvantage. Hearing the right sound is tremendously difficult for someone looking at the wrong words.

Go ahead, decry the idiosyncrasies of modern English spelling. (In one famous example, you can combine the gh from tough, the o from woman, and the ti from nation, and get a word—ghoti—that could plausibly be pronounced “fish.”) Yet, once you’ve memorized that corps is not pronounced like corpse, you can read either with confidence. And thanks to the spaces that separate one word from another, the value of which becomesapparentintheirabsence, no confusion arises as to whether redden is a verb or a brightly colored place to watch television. (No less important, we can know whether to expect our cousin to bring two boy friends or boyfriends to the wedding.)

In his Confessions, St. Augustine (Say end dog is teen, if you hadn’t guessed) expresses surprise and admiration for Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

Ambrose’s unusual ability was silent reading. As Alberto Manguel explains in A History of Reading, before consistent spelling and spacing (not to mention punctuation) entered the writing system, texts were generally read aloud. They had to be, because the one thing more difficult than reading oddly spelled words that are smashed together on the page aloud is reading oddly spelled words that are smashed together on the page silently. Readers had to work backward, using the sounds they heard themselves say to determine the words they had read.

A game of Mad Gab can give us some idea of how difficult this might have been. Or, for a more organic experience, we can work our way through a text that is written out phonetically, where words are spelled exactly as they sound to the author or narrator. When we readers do not possess the author or narrator’s dialect, word identification is not just laborious, but perilous, as well. Those of us who do not often encounter the North Riding dialect of Yorkshire, England, can consider the first stanza of author Nicholas Rhea’s poem “Aud Wheeaist”:

“Wheea’s that?” yelled oor missus

When Ah waved as a tractor com near.

“Whey, it’s Aud Wheeaist,” Ah said,

“E’s varry wheel knawn aroond here.”

 

Read the whole poem here—subsequent stanzas are trickier. Thank goodness for those spaces.

 

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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