Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little Town on the Prairie (I think: I don’t have that particular tome to hand) wrote of her sister coming home from the College for the Blind in Iowa and a particular practical joke that led Mary and her friend Blanche, who were both blind, to fool a shopkeeper into believing that they could tell different-coloured beads apart by touch alone, though Blanche had some limited residual vision, enough to identify colours.
Now, I can tell you that I can identify the sound of chocolate buttons from a single shop, Ye Olde Friars of Keswick. Brilliant, huh? A niche career identifying brands of chocolate from sound alone awaits . . . Except I have insider knowledge. After dinner this evening I was told to shut eyes and open mouth. I heard two paces towards the fridge, then a plasticky rustling that could only come from an old-fashioned sweet bag, which I immediately connected with the goodies from said emporium which have been sitting unopened on top of the fridge since the Bear’s last trip to Cumbria. Bear can’t surprise me any more with this sort of thing. Heh-heh-heh.
Which brings me neatly to the learning (or re-learning) of sound language. When you learn a foreign language you have to wade through what seems like reams of grammar (which you don’t do for your native language: you may learn it at a more formal level at school, but you’ve already mastered it by then). Grammar, however, though it seems a chore, is a labour-saving exercise – it enables you to work out categories intuited by native speakers without conscious thought. Most European languages have categories of verbs – and nouns – which are grouped together because they behave similarly. So, in theory, once you know the distinguishing features of each class, next time you meet a verb that behaves in a particular way, you know how to decline it without having to learn each one individually. It saves a lot of time when you’re learning Latin: present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, future, and future perfect tenses x 6 persons x 2 moods (active and passive) x 2 voices (indicative and subjunctive) = a gross (144) of permutations.
Learning new sounds works the same way. Take footsteps – your own, to start off with, every bash at grammar has to start somewhere. There’s all the different surfaces to learn – from domestic to exterior – carpet, wood, vinyl, concrete (as in our downstairs loo following a leak) – pavement, tarmac, gravel, grass, the tough dotted vinyl on the stairs at the railway station. Then you modify these sounds according to what sort of shoes you’re wearing, like the verbal moods, then you listen out for other people’s feet – male, female, click-clack, flip-flap, plonk-plonk, trip-trip, squeak-squeak.
As with all good languages, there are “false friends” – words which look or sound like words in your own language, but they mean something different. After my second mapping I was walking through the hospital grounds when I heard the click-clack of a woman walking briskly in stilettos ahead of me. She was walking exceedingly briskly, and drew away from me, but I could still hear click-clack, click-clack. Marvelling at the clarity of my mapping from so far away, I turned to cross the road and realised that another woman had come up behind me, taking over neatly from the other click-clacking woman. I had a chuckle, then realised I’d better get a move on, and click-clack sharpish for the bus.
Let’s take your average rustling noise. It could be a plastic bag or a paper bag – they sound different (the plastic bag is noisier: it doesn’t half make a racket), and a sweet bag is different again, or even foil. Just like a naughty hybrid verb – the bane of every schoolchild – which looks like one thing but behaves like another, some supermarkets sell bread that comes in a half-and-half bag, with a paper backing and perforated plastic on top, so it makes an intermediate rustling noise that is both plasticky and papery. A big plasticky rustling noise is someone across the room wrapping something in bubble wrap (followed by smiiiirrrkkk-skiiirrrk as she pulls out parcel tape.) The soft loo roll at home makes a quieter rustle than the cheaper and harder loo paper at work, which rustles a lot more obviously, and the paper towels more still. I love the rustle of paper tissues and especially the sound they make as you pull them out of the box. (My mother said she’d give me a box of tissues for my birthday then.)
If it’s a beeping noise – it’s electronic: from the faint beep as you tap out a text message, to the louder beep as you delete older messages, to the pingggg an e-mail makes as it goes on your Mac, or the pingg-poppa of the toaster. I can actually measure how far I’ve come in the beeps of death. At first I couldn’t hear the beeps that signalled that my batteries were about to conk out. Then I could. After the second mapping, Bear could hear the remote make warning beeps, but I couldn’t. Now I can hear the remote beeping in my handbag about 20 minutes before it all goes quiet. Motor noises can be anything from passing cars to my dad’s lawnmower (heard from inside) to aeroplanes to a hoover or Dyson. I couldn’t place an engine noise the other day: it wasn’t a plane, as there weren’t any, and it didn’t sound like a car. Oh – a motorbike. Gosh, they’re loud. A squealing noise is something that doesn’t work very well or is protesting – I’m convinced every door in the world squeaks (sorry Graham, we’ll oil the front door next time) or the brakes being applied on the train, with a helping of squeaky wheel on top.
I love water noises – the tap, the water fountain, filling up the kettle, running the bath, the gurgly-wurgly as the water runs out through the plughole. I want to try travelling on a steam train – will it sound like a boiling kettle x 10 or x 100 or even x 144? I want to hear the sea – though we went to the seaside the other day, we walked along the marina rather than on the seafront. I want to hear the lap of waves on a gentle shore – will it sound different on Northumberland dunes, Whitby rocks, Southwold pebbles or Thames mud? The day before the operation we went to Weymouth and the Bill of Portland. I want to go again and listen for the tide bubbling over the underwater “race” visible on the surface from the very tip of Portland. Or listen to the sea smashing against Southend pier in shipwreck weather.