Years ago, long before mobile phones with digital voice recorders, I used to carry a dictaphone around with me, the kind that uses mini-cassettes. My awareness of the world is probably about 95% visual – looking and seeing is how I learn and think and understand – but when it comes to listening, I’ve always known that that voices are something special.

I’m fascinated by accents and dialects. Hearing English spoken in all its global and regional variations it never ceases to amaze me how different it can sound, and I love listening to languages of all kinds. I’ve been known to follow people in the street just to carry on listening to the strange and wonderful sound of their unintelligible conversation, and whenever I hear something unfamiliar I can’t resist trying it out, getting my mouth to form deliciously unexpected vowel sounds. (Consonants defeat me; the subtleties of Urdu seem to be beyond the capabilities of my tongue and hard palate, but given a chance I can make a convicing imitation of the vowel sounds of Ireland, Australia, South Africa and various parts of the United States and I speak Spanish with an accent that is unfortunately far too plausible so that people think I’m fluent when sadly I’m absolutely not. I can’t seem to help it – I’m like a parrot, compelled to imitate strange sounds as accurately as I can for the sheer fun of it.)

When I was learning Spanish twenty years ago I used to record myself reading from the newspaper or from children’s books, and listen critically to hear where I was going wrong. I still have these tapes and they are a vivid reminder of what I was doing at the time, but here and there amongst the stories and articles are other recordings that I made on the spur of the moment for different reasons entirely, and some of these have captured a moment in time with such clarity it feels like magic.

Going through these tapes the other day I found a fragment of conversation that took place in the house of an old friend who has since died. I don’t know what prompted me to start recording; we are all laughing so much that at times it’s hard to work out what’s going on but the voices are so clear, so real, that I’m suddenly and completely transported in time. Nobody knew I was recording, so everyone is talking naturally and hearing his voice with all his idiosyncrasies of expression, his accent (american, and his spanish uniquely awful even after half a lifetime in Spain), his interjection as he suddenly thinks of the word we’re all looking for and above all, his laughter – I’m instantly there again, in that moment, filled with the same sense of fun and happiness that we all shared that lunchtime in his kitchen.

Memories of friends who have died are always poignant but this feels like something more than memory, and it’s something that I will always treasure. What is it about a voice that can have this power? Does sound, like smell, reach deeper into memory and touch emotion the way no image can? Probably. No photograph could do this. Much as I’d like to think that some of the pictures I take might one day remind me of who I was with and exactly how it all felt, I know this isn’t true.

I need to do more listening.



6 thoughts on “Voices

  1. Thanks. This was very thought provoking. Just this weekend I was out by the barn and my wife called to me from the house. I called back to her, and then returned to what I was doing with a strange sense of memory washing over me. After a moment I realized why it was–my voice, when I answered my wife, had sounded like the voice of my father, who died when I was just a boy.

    1. That’s really interesting. It must have been a powerful thing to feel. I know my voice is very like my mother’s and these days I sometimes hear the similarity, though because she’s still alive (and I talk to her often on the phone) I think the sort of sudden rush of memory you had isn’t something that would happen. Occasionally something will trigger a memory of my grandmother’s voice, and that’s always a wonderful experience. What an extraordinary thing memory is.

  2. Great post. Having just moved to a new city, I’m more tuned in to the way people speak, which is fun. Do you think just a recording, without video, is more powerful in some way as a trigger or memory? Interesting thought.

    1. It is an interesting thought and yes, I think it is more powerful but I don’t know why. Probably something to do with the way our brains are wired. Music does it for a lot of people and there are certain songs that plunge me back into a certain time when I hear them – but I don’t know if video is less powerful for me simply because it hasnt been a large part of my life. Until very recently I wouldn’t have been able to take videos as I now could (but in fact don’t) on my smartphone. We have an archive of family film footage taken on super 8 film which triggers amazingly strong, emotional memories, but this has no sound – and I think I prefer it somehow that way, as if I want just one kind of stimulus as a reminder and not the whole thing. I just don’t know! Fascinating, the more I think about it.
      Do you make sound recordings? Or videos? And do you find making drawings cements the memory of time and place better than taking pictures (which I do)? Its a big subject! Love to hear your thoughts.

  3. I’m a secret follower of lilting vowels and mysterious conversations as well. I love trying to place an accent or identify any language that drifts past. I love how you write about hearing the words of someone who has died. I takes remembering to another plane altogether. There are so many moments I wish I had captured on tape. Thanks for sharing yours.

    1. Nice to meet another follower of voices! I’ve just been reading some of the posts on your interesting blog. The subject of capturing and triggering memories is really one to explore, isn’t it? I’m aware that there are things that trigger memories for me that can throw me into a spin (a touch of PTSD if we have to put a label to it) but others that can float me back to times of happiness like nothing else. Much to think about. Thanks so much for reading and leaving your thoughts.

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