How Does History (Literally) Speak to You?

One thing we can’t glean from history prior to the invention of the phonograph is how people’s voices sounded. We may feel a profound connection with historical figures but can never hear how they spoke, a key aspect of their identity and personality. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Historical figures are more than just pictures on a page. They are people who lived and contributed to their communities, and trying to imagine them doing so can be a challenge to historians depending on what evidence remains. We’re always searching for more insight into the key quality that truly brings a historical figures to life: their personality.

Just as we once had no photographs to see what people really looked like, so too did we once lack film evidence that people really lived and spoke in distinctive ways. In trying to get a sense of mannerisms and voice, we first had to rely on audio.

Why do I think voice is such an important aspect of connecting to those who have predeceased us? I’m going to use politicians as my prime example. Many politicians are remembered as great orators whose speeches have moved and influenced societies during major events, from celebrations to declarations of war. I believe our voices carry much emotion, therefore conveying an important aspect of who we are.

lutherking
Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowds in Washington, DC. Photo: National Park Service

Think about it: how many times have you seen/met someone, and at first glance expected them to have a specific kind of voice (low, high, quavery, strong, accented)? And then they open their mouths and a completely different voice comes out! It changes your impression of them, doesn’t it? For instance, Daniel Day Lewis speaks in a higher pitch in the film Lincoln (2012), illustrating the surprising truth about former American President Abraham Lincoln’s high, reedy voice. It just goes to show how much the quality of one’s voice defines their presence.

Voices can be commanding or meek; soft or loud; rough or smooth; and all these sensory elements shape and cement identity, especially in public memory.

Take King George VI of Great Britain, and his speech of 3 September 1939 in which he confirms Britain’s involvement in World War II. This is the very same speech featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, as played by Colin Firth – and we can gain such a significant connection when hearing the King’s voice that it’s as if he’s in the room with us (such was the initial reaction to radio). If you listen to the real speech, you can hear George VI’s inflection and get a better impression of his presence, breaking an interpretation barrier that keeps him (and likewise, other historical figures) at a distance from us today.

Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (28 August 1963) be as rousing if we had read it on paper? Dr. King’s delivery of the speech is often remembered as an iconic capstone of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the significance of voice and audio in preserving historical records. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristic drone is recognizable to many of us, and his famous WWII “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (4 June 1940) has also been recreated in recent films such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017).

Charlie Chaplin, a British actor who was primarily known for his silent films, also understood the power of speech and voice in captivating and inspiring audiences. Taking advantage of the emergence of sound in film, his speech in The Great Dictator (1940) subverts Adolf Hitler’s acknowledged oratory skills and uses them for good in his own parody version of a wartime dictator’s speech.

dictator
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Still further, accents offer a whole different opportunity for biographical interpretation: for example, though former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a Quebecois francophone, he learned English in New Glasgow and therefore spoke with a slight Scottish accent, something I could never learn from merely looking at photographs or silent film clips. Observations were written down, but without audio we can never hear them for ourselves. The first Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s accent is also in question, as he was raised in the Bay of Quinte/Kingston, Ontario, far from Glasgow itself (though the latter was his birthplace). American President John F. Kennedy’s Boston accent also defines his aura in our memories. If we can hear politicians speak, we can further understand their essence as people and their leadership qualities.

Is this post, then, a prolonged lamentation that I’ll never get to hear the voices of so many historical figures who captivate me? I’m not denying it – and I’m arguing that we could all do with taking some time away from our highly absorbing smartphones to be present. Listen to people’s voices, enjoy the timbre and cadence, connect with the emotions that shine through when people speak. We often take it for granted that we’ll get to hear their voices every day, but when they’re gone, all that will be left of them is our memory and the records we’ve kept.

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