August 20, 2009

In Her Own Words

For all my fellow English majors out there, I happened upon the above YouTube video that features the only known audio recording of Virginia Woolf's voice. The audio excerpt is from a 1937 BBC radio conference. When I first heard her voice, I thought, "oh yes, that is exactly how she would sound." Her voice is gentle, her English accent: refined, elegant. Her speech centers upon the English language, words. She reflects on how older words incite memories and images in the mind of the reader or listener. She discourages the invention of new words in favor of celebrating and developing a deeper understanding of these original creations (an opinion with which I do not personally agree). She sees words as part of other words and not fully existing until they are in sentences. Her speech runs like a dream, the pattern of her crystalline intellect. A brilliant, yet tragic pillar of the English language and literature, Woolf's voice embodied that same mix of intelligence and sorrow.

I also discovered an interesting speech given by the contemporary British author, Zadie Smith, at the New York Public Library in December 2008. Smith's speech also deals with the notion of language, in particular, tones and accents. First, she reflects on her own voice and how one's accent or accents directly correlates to your original experience. She draws her thesis to George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion to talk about how changing accents affects one's psyche and personality. In Eliza Doolittle's case, ending up in a sort of personal limbo between worlds. Especially in England, your accent indicates your origins and often dictates your place in a society that is still incredibly divided into a class structure. She also spends a great deal of time examining the chameleonic nature of President Barack Obama as evidence from his autobiography, Dreams of My Father. She leads talk of accents into a fascinating discussion of conflicted identity that can arise from moving between worlds,constantly living in the interim.

The full text of Smith's speech is here. You can listen to the speech here or download it from iTunes' New York Public Library podcast collection.

Image can be found here.

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