Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Word! The Language Column
The Voice, the Word and the Air in Between

Illustration: A computer screen showing an open mouth with a speech bubble that says "True".
We exchange air and words. It’s a physical exchange. | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In her final column, rapper Taiga Trece riffs on the voice, spoken language and air – and wraps them all together.

By Taiga Trece

My previous columns have been mostly about rap music. I wrote about swelled heads and lots of hot air, about voluble tension between hip hop and the media, and what a breath of fresh air it would be to hear more women and Hispanic voices in the rap game. Spoken language is made of air, and the air is everywhere.

A rapper needs to draw a deep breath to air all those words.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.[…] In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.  

Breathtaking words about the Word. So plain and yet open to so many interpretations.

The development of language can be traced back to the evolution of Homo erectus and, specifically, walking upright. When prehistoric man began walking around on two legs, human anatomy changed too: Our organs had to be lowered and realigned in the body, the spine straightened out and the larynx lowered too, which enabled us to produce and avail ourselves of a wider range of sounds. The human brain thenceforth expanded and our ancestors became Homo sapiens.

Walking upright changed everything. It rebooted human communication and was probably partly responsible for the multitude of languages.

Air becomes sound

What was once just hot respiration now sparks heated deliberation. Talking big is one of those rap things. You might say language is just hot air too. But no, language needs room to breathe and air our inspirations. We exchange air and words. It’s a physical exchange. The air we breathe communicates with the people and the world around us. So is our spoken language part of the atmosphere? Where do the sounds actually originate if they’re merely made of air? Well, in our mouth, throat, larynx and vocal cords. Like breath, language is a real physical exchange between what’s around us and what’s inside us.

What were the first words? Words for things of immediate vital importance for survival: for natural objects like trees and lightning, for example. Words are more useful than gestures or facial expressions in the dark or when rapid action is of the essence. Likewise important were tags for personal relationships, e.g. “mama” and “child” – anything and everything that made for more comprehensible communication between people.

The first humans might have got started with words for “you”, “me” and “us”, which might have given rise to the ego, the concept of individuality versus belonging to a group. Belonging is still a must for many people today. Without the word “me”, it’s hard to express personal needs. We’ve no need to resort to growling, to our teeth and fists to assert ourselves anymore. We can simply say, “I’d really like the last piece of cake.”

But whether I get it or someone else does may depend on how I say it.

The voice and the words

Human voices per se preceded language and are a key element of communication. Our voices can express emotion. In fact, the pitch of one’s voice usually reveals more about the emotion expressed than the words themselves. “I'm not angry,” for example, is hard to fake when you’re angry as hell. The undertone tells a different story. Not for nothing do we speak of mixed messages in a single utterance. Communication psychologists have even come up with a model for this equivocal phenomenon.

I worked for four years in ear, nose and throat medicine as a voice and speech therapist. My patients ranged from 18 to 80 years old. Most were suffering from ailments like tinnitus, acute hearing loss – or burnout. By working on vocal placement, on what is expressed without being said, I was able to gauge the success of the treatment and healing. Listening therapy was also part of the therapeutic approach. Which makes sense because speaking and the reception of spoken communication depends on hearing. By including music, letters of the alphabet and sounds, we managed to raise the patients’ spirits, which was key to the healing process.


Many words in German contain the word Stimme (voice) and it’s no wonder all these words have a common root: your voice reveals your state of mind.

Voice work is essential to professionals in various industries, including singers, rappers and actors, (radio) presenters, barkers and salespersons and so on. Their objectives vary, as does the vocal register required for the job. A barker, or market crier, has to be voluble, noticeable and insistent, while an audiobook narrator fitting that description wouldn’t get any gigs. It's all about using your voice the right way: die Stimme muss stimmig sein – the voice has got to be pitched just right.

In my previous post I mentioned that language has a personality and an identity. So when voice and language come together, two identities meet and can become one. Though sometimes one can’t help feeling these two personalities aren’t authentic or don’t match: Etwas stimmt nicht, something’s not right. Then again, this is something you can work on.

Sorry but I'm not in the mood (in Stimmung). When I get there, I’ll need a little time to get into the mood (mich einstimmen). It’s not what you say, but how you say it (Der Ton macht die Musik: literally, “the tone/sound makes the music”). I raised an objection, but I was overruled (überstimmt). To have a sharp or wicked tongue (mit spitzer Zunge sprechen, ein loses Mundwerk haben). – All these German idioms express something that goes beyond the verbal function of the human voice.

Working on your own voice, like learning a new language, can open up whole new worlds. Voice training always involves personal development, too. Learning a language can be tricky if you lack vocabulary. You need staying power – and the right intonation. Because, once again, in its pitch and intensity, the air we exhale – and speed up or slow down on the – is often worth a thousand words.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.