Laver, John, 1996:

The Gift of Speech

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Pp. xviii + 400.
ISBN 0-7486-0875-3 (paperback) £18.95.

reviewed by

Patrick Honeybone

Department of English, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1997 Patrick Honeybone.
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Few people could have any reservation about the title of this book, originally published in hardback in 1991. The author is concerned with various, sometimes intimately connected, aspects of the study of speech. His interests in this regard, declared in the introduction and apparent from the range of topics covered in this book (newly reprinted as a paperback), are impressively broad; it should be stated from the outset that anyone with an interest in the study of the use of speech in human communication will find something to attract them here.

It is, however, a little surprising (particularly in the first part of the book where reference is made several times to the mapping of an 'idea' to the linguistic entities which are needed to convey it) that Laver does not really concern himself anywhere in the book with a possible distinction between 'speech' and 'language'. This distinction is commonly made in linguistics in connection with Saussure's famous dichotomy between 'langue' and 'parole' (Saussure 1915) or, more recently, with reference to Chomsky's conception of 'competence' versus 'performance' (Chomsky 1965). In terms of these distinctions, 'speech' and 'language' can and should be thought of as two conceptually different things, where a term such as 'competence', or sometimes simply, 'language' is often used to refer to an entity which is comprised of the syntactic, morphological and phonological properties of the adult steady state of mind/brain which underlies the ability to communicate using vocally produced sounds (or writing, or the manual/facial gestures of sign languages). On this position, the term 'speech' refers to anything involved with the use of sounds which in some way 'connects-up' with mentally stored language, often to effect communication (but not always, as in the case of 'talking to yourself', for instance). Laver discusses "the gift of speech" in this book, but it is not entirely clear whether he would distinguish between 'speech' and 'language' in the way outlined above. Some hints are given in the introduction, where he identifies himself as being connected with a long line of phoneticians in "a tradition which insists on the inseparability of the physical and the psychological aspects of language" (p. x), and in it is telling that, although both Chomsky (1957) and Chomsky & Halle (1968) are mentioned as works which "changed the paradigm of linguistic theory" in the introduction (p. ix), hardly any work from a generative tradition is cited elsewhere; indeed, recent developments in phonological theory are discussed in only one chapter (on two pages: 112-114). So it seems that Laver might conceive of 'language' and 'speech', as defined above, as being synonymous, such that the book could equally have been called "The Gift of Language."

As it is, however, none would argue with the title of the book, as I claim above; such linguists that might argue with the view that "the sub-disciplinary boundary between phonetics and linguistics, which has always been of doubtful validity, is largely disappearing" (p. 9) might claim that Laver's results and inferences, as described in the book, relate to and describe performance systems and not (necessarily) linguistic competence, but this does not make them any less valid. The position which Laver seems to take is widespread in phonetics and linguistics (see, for example, Kohler 1984), but it is not as uncontroversial as his failure to discuss it might make it seem (see, for example, Fromkin 1985).

With this small reservation aside ‹ it is, after all, arguably only a matter of interpretation of Laver's results and findings ‹ it must be said that the discussion of the various aspects of speech addressed in this book makes fascinating reading. The book is a collection of 20 papers which were written over a period of 20 years (1968-1988); the individual chapters were originally published separately in a wide range of journals and books, thus the welcome rationale behind the present volume is to collect up Laver's work (some of which would otherwise be relatively inaccessible) and to present it as a whole. Of course, Laver's widely respected books (e.g., Laver 1980, 1994) are not included here but some of the articles in "The Gift of Speech" acted as source material for them. Seven of the articles are co-authored with others and four were "previously distributed only in informal 'Work in Progress' publications to colleagues" (p. xiv).

As briefly mentioned above, on the evidence presented here, Laver's research interests have been wide in scope. Even the most fleeting of glances through the references to the articles, presented after each chapter, rather than all being lumped together at the end of the book, demonstrates the breadth and depth of Laver's reading in and knowledge of the subjects he covers, where phonetics mingles with philosophy, psychology, neurology, anatomy, speech therapy, semiotics, computational speech synthesis and classics, amongst others. This reflects Laver's view that "the study of speech is now of necessity a multidisciplinary enterprise [...]. No aspect of speech should be foreign to the phonetician" (p. xvii); given this, Laver's hope, expressed in the introduction, that "this book will be of interest not only to professional readers in phonetics and neighbouring subjects such as linguistics, cognitive and social psychology, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, laryngology and phoniatrics, but also to other academic readers and educated readers in general" (p. xviii) is unlikely to be misplaced. That the various articles which make up the chapters of the book were originally aimed at different audiences does mean that there will inevitably be some minor inconsistencies of style or presentation in the collection, such as the fact that the sounds of speech are transcribed in several different ways in the book - using IPA symbols in Chapter 2; using symbols derived from English spelling conventions in Chapter 6 (for example /u:/ is written as 'OO'); and using a type of "machine readable transcription" (p. 105) in Chapter 7 (where /u:/ is written as 'uu'), but this should not present any problem for the reader. The book is well written with a lucid and accessible style and includes several illustrations and tables which help to make the discussion clear.

The book is divided into two parts. The first seven chapters make up Part 1 and the larger Part 2 is comprised of 13 chapters. Part 1 is given the sub-title "Speech Production" and Part 2 is called "The Description of Voice Quality"; these are apt in describing the two key areas addressed from a range of perspectives in the book. In the two parts, the articles are arranged in roughly chronological order, which makes sense, as the key ideas expounded in the two parts can be seen to develop over time by reading the articles one after the other, just as Laver's ideas must have developed. There are some cases where the ordering of articles seems a little peculiar, and the articles could arguably be divided into more 'parts'; a pattern repeats itself in the series of articles on related topics such that the first is a preliminary exposition of the ideas addressed, and the following articles refine the distinctions and bring in further considerations.

I shall discuss the content of the articles in more detail below; first I consider the general structure of the book and how it relates to content.

Chapters 1 through 6 (published between 1968 and 1979) deal with slips of the tongue and the evidence that they provide for the construction of models of speech planning, monitoring and production. The chapters form a unit in terms of content, and key ideas can be traced through them all; in this sense, Chapter 5 can be seen as the culmination of Laver's ideas on this subject. Chapter 2 presents an analysis of some tongue-slip data and discusses the frequency of different types of slips in connection with the syllabic position of segments and the relative prominence of syllables in tone-groups. Chapter 6 presents and discusses some new tongue-slip data gathered through a laboratory elicitation process. Chapter 7, originally published in 1989, is rather different to the others chapters in Part 1, and is not just concerned with considerations of "speech production". In the chapter, Laver reviews the contribution which the study of speech can make to the cognitive sciences in terms of the semiotic, biological and physical perspectives on both speech production and perception. Some of the key points made here relate to the effect that all the different types of information (such as the "physical, social and psychological attributes of speaker identity, as well as shorter-term attributes of mood and attitude" - page 122) which are carried in the speech signal can have on the perceiver of speech and the problems that this great amount of information might pose for automated speech synthesis and speech recognition. This latter part ties in more closely with Part 2 of the present volume than the rest of the discussion in Part 1; as such, the chapter forms a conceptual bridge to the next part of the book.

Chapters 8 through 13 (first published between 1974 and 1981) form another sequence of articles. They deal with the description and classification of how voice quality can differ on both an inter-speaker and intra-speaker basis, determined by such factors as vocal-tract anatomy, habitual articulatory settings and tone of voice. The non-semantic, or semiotic, information which can be carried by such aspects of the speech signal is also addressed. Chapter 12 could be seen as the culmination of Laver's ideas on the phonetic description of voice quality in and of itself (although an even fuller description is found in Laver 1980). Chapter 8 also discusses the transmission, during communication, of other non-semantic information about the speaker and their attitude, through what is conventionally termed 'body-language'. Chapter 11 is an attempt to come to terms with the 'impressionistic', that is, 'lay' terms that have been used in literature and general conversation to describe the aspects of voice quality which Laver succeeds in categorising elsewhere in a consistent and scientific way; this theme is returned to in Chapters 19 and 20 (the last chapters in the book, originally published in 1981 and 1978) which are fascinating historical overviews of how the concepts of tone of voice (Chapter 19) and articulatory setting (Chapter 20) have been described in the past, starting with the classical period and the seventeenth century respectively. Several of the terms discussed in Chapter 11 also crop up in Chapters 19 and 20, so it might have been more sensible to place them directly after Chapter 11, but this is, of course, a very minor point. As it is, Chapter 14 (co-written with Peter Trudgill and originally published in 1979) intervenes, where the semiotic information carried by voice quality is compared to the information about social class and aspirations that is encoded in the signal (as studied in sociolinguistics), as do Chapters 15 through 18 (originally published between 1981 and 1988) which do discuss voice quality (like the other chapters in Part 2) but from an exclusively medical perspective. These articles, which derive from projects funded by the Medical Research Council are concerned with the possible practical applications of Laver's research on voice quality to the diagnosis of medical or pathological conditions which affect the voice. One of the types of information which the voice quality of a speaker carries (as discussed in the earlier chapters in Part 2) relates to their health; there are various conditions which can affect voice quality, from such obvious cases as laryngitis to other conditions such as cleft palate, profound hearing loss, and growths on or inflammations of the larynx. Whilst these articles do refer to some of the same ideas as the rest of Part 2, they could also have formed a separate, third part of the book.

As regards Part 1, Laver's primary concern is "the attempt to use data from direct observation of speech to infer functional properties of the neural control systems in the brain's organisation of speech production" (p. 4) with the rationale that "the workings of an opaque system like the brain might at least be approached through an examination of its characteristic malfunctions" (p. xiii). The model of neurolinguistic functioning (i.e. neural and motor planning for speech) which Laver suggests rests on the assumption that many possibilities are activated or assessed in the various stages of planning which Laver recognises before articulation, but that all but one are rejected. Slips of the tongue can occur when something goes wrong in one of the stages of planning, and blends, unfitting words, spoonerisms and the like will be the result, for example "didn't bother me in the sleast" (mixing 'slightest' and 'least' - page 42) or "the two contemporary, er - sorry, adjacent buildings" (p. 74) or "a kice ream cone" (for 'ice cream' - p. 75) "alsho share" (for 'also share' - p. 78).

Laver assumes the following model for speech production (adapted from figure 5.1, page 68):

Ideation --> Abstract linguistic planning --> Abstract motor planning --> Conversion of motor program to neuromuscular commands --> Articulation --> Post-articulation monitoring for error.

In addition to the 'post-articulation monitoring for error', which normally leads us to correct slips of the tongue once they are uttered ('overt errors'), Laver suggests that the programming for speech is constantly monitored by the mind/brain and that many 'covert errors' are made, but are picked up and corrected by pre-articulation monitoring systems before they are uttered. There are, of course, certain problems with this ‹ how can we be sure that covert errors exist? Laver writes that "I feel sure that I have had the experience of being aware that a slip of the tongue was imminent, and reprogramming in time to maintain fluent speech"; whilst others may share this intuition, data as to the nature and form that covert errors might take is unobtainable. Also in this regard, whilst it cannot be denied that slips of the tongue are vital and important evidence for our neuro- and psycholinguistic understanding, there are some problems that underlie their use as evidence; we rely of sometimes haphazardly collected corpora, which often result from a linguist 'collecting' them ‹ writing them down as they occur in the natural conversations which they have. As MacKay (1980) explains, "certain theoretically important classes of speech errors occur too infrequently for any one person to collect enough of them"; in this regard, it is noticeable that Laver uses a small number of slips as exemplification again and again in the different articles that make up the present volume. This leads researchers to carry out elicitation experiments, of the kind reported by Laver in Chapter 6, which certainly produce important results, but could possibly be questioned on the principle that the evidence which they produce was not gathered under normal conversational conditions. It is a shame that neither of these points are discussed by Laver.

The intriguing relationship between 'ideation' and 'abstract linguistic planning' and the possible form of the entities which are provided for under the term 'ideation' is also not really touched upon, as mentioned above, but Laver does not pretend to provide a fully comprehensive picture; indeed, he freely admits that there can be "no doubt that we are at present a very long way from any such unified cognitive model for language performance" (p. 93). Despite this, the model which Laver proposes is persuasive.

Laver's interest in voice quality stems from the insight that much of the information carried by the speech signal is often not discussed by phoneticians or linguists. He writes that "the phonic medium [...] is used to signal three different sorts of information - phonological, paraphonological and extralinguistic information; and that all three sorts of information can depend, in different languages (or, within one language, in different accents, in different styles and registers and with different individuals), on the use of identical features." (p. 162). Phonological information has to do with the kind of phonemic segmentation with which most phoneticians and phonologists concern themselves; 'paraphonological' or 'paralinguistic' information is conveyed, for example, by the 'tone of voice' which may be adopted by a speaker, consciously or not, such that a listener can judge that a speaker wants to convey that something is confidential, or is angry, or pleased, for example. Within paraphonology "there will perhaps be tendencies [...] normally to exploit longer-term aspects of the phonetic features than the characteristically short-term aspects employed by phonology" (p. 165). Extralinguistic information is not under the control of the speaker, but involves both 'permanent' features such as "vocal features deriving from anatomical differences between individuals influencing both quality and dynamic aspects" (p. 241) and 'quasi-permanent' features such as "voice settings, i.e. habitual muscular adjustments of the vocal apparatus, including voice quality settings and voice dynamic settings" (p. 241). The important corollary of this is that, a priori, "there is no way of telling (from quality alone) whether breathy voice, for example, is acting as a phonological signal (as in 'voiced aspiration' in Hindi and Gujarati), or as a paraphonological signal of confidential intimacy (as in English), or as a concurrent voice quality feature merely characterising the speaker." (p. 165). The latter two types of information are conveyed by voice quality and, as we also saw above, Laver shows in Chapters 15 through 18 how voice quality can be affected by medical conditions and what the implications of his research (setting up a system of classification based on phonetic terminology) might be for the non-intrusive diagnosis of laryngeal conditions.

Both supralaryngeal and laryngeal settings are described in Laver's system of classification and the possibilities of combination are described. The only problem with this is that, while most of the descriptive terms are perfectly transparent and should enable anyone trained in articulatory phonetics to mimic the voice qualities described, a longing could be provoked in the reader for a recording of the various settings, such as that provided with Laver (1980), just to check exactly how, for example, a 'harsh whispery creaky falsetto with labial protrusion' sounds.

The different approaches to the subject shown in Part 2 of the book are intriguing, but it is likely that they will appeal to different audiences. Some of the later chapters are awash with medical and anatomical terminology, which makes it a little difficult for someone not trained in this field to follow, but as Laver says, the book is aimed at a wide audience and it is doubtless the case that speech therapists and laryngologists will think these the most important chapters and will find earlier chapters less attractive. In general, I think that this last point indicates how best this book can be used. I suspect that it is not intended to be read as a whole; the fact that it is a compilation of articles suggests that the book is best used as a resource, where individual chapters can be read by themselves or in connection with only the surrounding articles. In the introduction, Laver asks the reader's indulgence for the fact that there is a certain amount of repetition amongst the articles presented here; we must grant him that, for it is to be expected, given the fact that the articles were written separately for publication in various places, and the fact that the book will likely be used as a way of obtaining articles which would otherwise be out of print. It could be argued that some of the chapters could have been left out, maybe for example, one of the first six chapters in both Part 1 and Part 2, where often very similar ground is covered, but if readers choose only those articles which are of most interest to themselves, the repetition of arguments, examples and figures which does occur if every chapter is read in succession would be avoided.

In sum, this book is well worth both reading and owning. The findings presented are intriguing and raise a challenge for any linguist to deal with and account for Laver's results. Of course there is no pretence in the book to cover everything connected with the 'gift of speech'; it is not a textbook in phonetics (Laver 1994 is an admirable example of that) but it does contain a significant collection of work.


Chomsky, Noam, 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Chomsky, Noam, 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle, 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.

Fromkin, Victoria, 1980. Errors in Linguistic Performance. New York: Academic Press.

Fromkin, Victoria, 1985. "Evidence in Linguistics." Linguistics and Linguistic Evidence. The LAGB Silver Jubilee Lectures 1984. Newcastle: Grevatt & Grevatt. 18-38.

Kohler, Klaus, 1984. "Phonetic explanation in phonology: the feature fortis/lenis." Phonetica 41. 150-174.

Laver, John, 1980. The Phonetic Description of Voice Quality. Cambridge: CUP.

Laver, John, 1994. Principles of Phonetics. Cambridge: CUP.

MacKay, Donald, 1980. "Speech errors: Retrospect and Prospect." Fromkin (1980:319-332).

Saussure, Ferdinand de, 1915. Cours de Linguistique Générale. Translated by Baskin, W., 1966, as Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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