BOOKS

Speaking a volume

An author examines the world of words

JOHN DeMONT November 9 1992
BOOKS

Speaking a volume

An author examines the world of words

JOHN DeMONT November 9 1992

Speaking a volume

BOOKS

An author examines the world of words

TALK TALK TALK By Jay Ingram (Viking, 318 pages, $19.99)

There is no such thing as idle banter, according to Canadian science writer and broadcaster Jay Ingram. In Talk Talk Talk, his lively new book on the mysteries of speech, he maintains that every time two people exchange words they perform a feat of physiological wonder. Speech, says Ingram, is laden with history and steeped in the give-and-take of human relationships.

“It’s the ease of language that allows us to forget how complex it is,” he writes. His lively book makes it hard to speak without marvelling, at least

for a moment, at how much goes into the most casual conversation. Occasionally, Ingram’s somewhat breathless prose betrays his roots as the former host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks science program. Still, in the tradition

of Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks, he manages a difficult trick—making the minutiae of science seem alluring to the uninitiated. Ingram instructs and entertains as he explores the human phenomenon of speech. His

book is a witty primer on how people speak and listen, how the brain controls conversation and how children learn to talk. But he also plays detective, investigating the roots of speech while hunting for the first language ever spoken, which some linguists contend can be traced back to a single word, tik, which meant “one,” “pointing finger” or simply “finger.” As a clinical writer, in particular, Ingram shines: his book is laced with case histories of

patients afflicted with bizarre speech disorders. He also provides fascinating accounts of the scientific breakthroughs that have furthered understanding of speech, and of the disputes that have split the linguistic and scientific communities. Equally interesting are his ruminations on some of the foibles of human conversation, including Freudian slips and the frequent use in English of “you know.” Ultimately, Ingram points out that even the most astute linguists and scientists have so far been unable to solve many of the most provocative questions surrounding speech. His own book provides as many questions as answers: Is language innate or learned? Can animals talk? What happens when people speak in tongues? pens

Why do people hear inner voices? Ingram’s own refreshing voice transforms those mysteries into compelling reading.

JOHN DeMONT