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thought / music = language (on the radio)

The brand-new Radiolab episode “Words” is characteristically terrific; I tweeted this after listening to just the opening section:

I love hearing @JadAbumrad’s voice fill my room, but @wnycradiolab’s “Words” is fucking me up right now. You’ve made a grown man cry. Shit.

There’s also an accompanying video, made by Will Hoffman, Daniel Mercadante, and Keith Kenniff:

Also, it’s not the VERY best section of the program, but there is a very nice exploration of Shakespeare’s inventive use of language that word/history nerds like me will especially enjoy. (I’m using inventive in its proper dual sense of innovative inventory, making new use of material already at hand. It’s easy to overstate how many words Shakespeare “actually” “invented.”)

Now “Words” is mostly about the relationship between language and our ability to make conceptual distinctions to connect or distinguish between different things. The 2006 episode “Musical Language” traces the other path words take to the brain, through our ears. (Note: I still think this is the greatest episode of Radiolab of ALL TIME. Story, reporting, production - just note and letter perfect.)

This show starts out by introducing a random earworm so insistent and amazing, it would wreck everything if I were to give it away. Instead, I’ll just give you the summary of the historically-tasty middle of the show, and let you take it away from there:

Anne Fernald explains our need to goochie-goochie-goo at every baby we meet, and absolves us of our guilt. This kind of talk, dubbed motherese, is an instict that crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries. Caecilius was goochie-goochie-gooing in Rome; Grunt was goochie-gooing in the caves. Radio Lab did our own study of infant-directed speech, recording more than a dozen different parents. The melodies of these recordings illustrate Fernald’s findings that there are a set of common tunes living within the words that parents all over the world intone to their babies.

Then, science reporter Jonah Lehrer takes us on a tour through the ear as we try to understand how the brain makes sense of soundwaves and what happens when it can’t. Which brings us to one particularly riotous example: the 1913 debut performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Jonah suggests that the brain’s attempt to tackle disonant sounds resulted in old ladies tackling each other.

What are you waiting for? Go! Listen to them both!