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Talking the talk: two University of Bristol lectures

May 10, 2012
Darwin Bell image of mouth

image by Darwin Bell on Flickr

Two talks, two different subjects. The first, the psychology of language production, focused on what happens to make sure we speak, and speak sense. The second, by one of our greatest living playwrights, is an example of what happens when language is manipulated by a true artist.

The beauty of the first, Prof Markus Damian‘s inaugural lecture in the University of Bristol’s Department of Experimental Psychology (2 May 2012), was in making all of us feel pretty amazing for deciphering a belt from a boat, given how little we really know about how language develops in our brains.

Prof Damian stripped away some of the mystery of this fascinating area to show the dark arts behind the theory.  How the heck do you measure what happens in the brain during language production, he asks, without putting someone inside a scanner and telling them not to move or even say a word?

You do tests like this one, which measures the theory of competition ie. choice of word depends on other words present: You show someone a picture of a peach, say, and ask them to name it. You then show them a picture of a peach with ‘TOWER’ written across it, and it’ll take them longer to say ‘peach’. But not as long as if it has ‘APPLE’ written across it, which is in turn not as long as if you also read ‘PEAR’ .  So there’s a bit of interference semantically, because ‘APPLE’ means something like the picture, but there’s also confusion if the other word sounds similar – a phonological link.  That tells us a bit about how words are organised in our brain.  Prof Damian reckons it’s different for Western language speakers, however, and is engaged in interesting studies with two doctoral students on why this isn’t the case in Mandarin – one to watch, as their paper’s currently under review.

This is all pretty abstract stuff – and the lecture was most interesting when it touched on things we could all relate to.  The idea that speaking involves listening to yourself is key to understanding what happens when things go awry, Prof Damian argued.  He suggested that we predict our own speech to help us say things accurately.   But for people with schizophrenia, the ‘voice’ in the head that predicts that speech may be pretty loud, making it more difficult for them to work what it is that other people are saying, what they are saying, and what is essentially a thought process (Hickok).

Prof Damian gave throughout little sparks of intrigue about what might happen in the future: his opportunity to use new scanning technology in Cardiff to establish what really happens in the brain when someone speaks; the possibilities of investigating how different language speakers might function differently.  It was an academic lecture through and through, but Prof Damian gave the sense that we were listening to the beginnings of something quite ground breaking.

And at the simplest level, we merge individual sounds to create meaning – what’s not to be impressed about Homo sapiens skills?  However, when Professor points out the spoonerisms, confusions and oddities of how we speak, we’re all squirming slightly – the subjects he refers to are the people he’s addressing.


It was, therefore, slightly more relaxing to be in the company of David Edgar (Wickham theatre, 10 May 2012), who clearly has no problems tapping into his mental lexicon, engaging his motor system, and articulating beautifully.  Articulating, that is,  over sixty published plays, and becoming one of the UK’s greatest and most talked-about living playwrights.  All this, he told us, since developing the lungs to protest as a 3 3/4 year old at Beauty and the Beast, scared witless by the magic.

He cut an interesting figure on the stage, somewhere between academic and actor, in an oversize black suit offset by black trainers, as if about to break into dance. Indeed as he lurched towards the lectern to make a point, it seemed he might suddenly launch into a soliloquy as eloquent as the words he was reading.

Already established as an authority figure in the world of dramatic research, David traced a beguiling thread through British drama, from the class preoccupations of the sixties, through the democratic revolution to the eighties’ attempts to overthrown the masculine order, ‘in your face’ nineties  drama and the “bloodless” fact-based drama in the noughties. He argued that the birth of modern drama in the UK was as much about brave directors and the state subsidy as it was about an emerging Fringe scene and the establishment of career paths for playwrights, supported by newly collaborative peers.

As the Arts Council cuts its funding for new writers, David’s voice is not alone in calling for a review of the status quo.  He was impressive on the stats: in the five years to 2008, over 40% of plays in rep theatres across the country were new, a significant increase on previous periods, and a considerable proportion of those were played out in the main houses outside London.

New writing’s in good shape, it seems. We have more playwrights now from different backgrounds, which means it’s diverse. We include adaptations and children’s plays among that count, increasing audiences.  Playwrights are used to working to a brief and many will have followed a specific training course, so the UK’s young talent is supported and sustained.  And, perhaps more importantly, we have creative directors, many of them women, who are ready to back this new writing.

“The idea that one person will pay one thousand pounds to watch one person perform is wrong,” he said.  So with a brief diverting diatribe about musical theatre and its role in reducing regular play-going audiences, he recognised that young playwrights like the ones in the audience would have to worry about cast size as much as plot.  But the message was one of hope, and “we’ve been here before.” Theatre has managed to stay fresh and current not because of great swathes of funding, but because there is nothing like the performance to bring a message home – you don’t need the Space to make theatre 3D, it already is 3D. And how wonderful David was in it.

If you’re interested to see some of the new theatre that David mentioned, try these….

Companies: Sound and Fury, Frantic Assembly, Tricycle Theatre

Plays: Playing with Fire (Theo Fleury), Posh (Laura Wade), Tusk, Tusk (Polly Stenham),  Enron (Lucy Prebble), Jerusalem (Jez Butterworth), Frozen (Bryony Lavery), Stuff Happens (David Hare); also Alistair Beaton.

Find out more about the University’s programme of public lectures and events

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