Verbal dynamics

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Judy Baker loaned me Into the Life of Things: An exploration of language though verbal dynamics by Christabel Burniston and Jocelyn Bell, published in 1972. The book is designed to help teach English through the use of movement, what the authors call ‘verbal dynamics’. Many of the ideas in this book preempted what we would now call ‘embodied cognition’ and in some ways may still be ahead of the field. Below I quote some fascinating examples from the opening chapter. Afterward I add my comments:

Speech is movement and at the physical level words are infinitely complicated movement sequences; spoken language is, like body action, a form of energy in space. We found that immediately a spoken word and its implied movement were combined, both speech and action were dynamically invigorated. We coined the description verbal dynamics because, through this combination, speech movements became muscular and mobile, words were endowed with life, light, and colour, and physical action strengthened into purposeful significant effort. We found, in short, that when accompanied by movement, voiced language had exactly the same factors of space, time, weight, flow and rhythm as the movement itself. (p. 3)

Burniston and Bell recommend you discover how appropriate most Anglo-Saxon verbs are for their job by saying the example words below while doing the equivalent action simultaneously.

Take the word stretch. The body is contracted with potential energy on the ‘st’ as the tongue presses against teeth and palate for the sounds; travel outwards with strongly directed sustained effort as the voice travels though the continuant ‘r-e’; reaches its fullest extension and finish on the forceful ‘tch’, and the movement relaxes slightly as the plosive* consonant is released. The longer and more indulgent the stretch, the more extended correspondingly will be the time taken on the word.

Other examples Burniston and Bell deconstruct are: push and pull. They continue their investigation by pointing out the differences between pull and drag, haul and tug. As you say these words, notice what you have to do with your mouth, tongue, neck muscles, breath, etc. They maintain that to say the words you have to recapitulate the kind of action your body would be doing. And they go further:

The vowel ‘u’ is itself an ‘effort’ sound, very near the small vocal contractions or grunts which we emit under muscular stress. The sound usually implies an element of discomfort but can signify pleasure. It is fascinating to discover that it is contained in quite a number of words associated with painful effortful experience.

grunt, grumble, trudge, stumble, lump, plunge, tumble, dump, muddle, rush, huddle, suffer, rough, thrust, lumber, budge, toughen, crumble, thump, crumple, utter, (put the close and tension of ‘st’ in front of utter and it defines the distressing effort of impaired speech in stutter).(p.6 )

Is this pure chance? Or do the words evolve from the basic intuition which produces a confluence of sounds in concord with their meaning?

Take another of their examples:

Rise takes the body up. It stirs on the ‘r’, moves up in a smooth sustained flow on the long ‘i’ and continues to its limit on the final ‘se’. The rhythm and time-duration is quite different from jump which, like tug, is short, takes off on the effortful ‘j’ and returns with a quick rebound between the ‘m’ and the ‘p’; and from soar which, with the narrow compressed ‘s’ sound suggests a sharper lift, and freer exploration of space on the wide-open ‘oar’. (pp. 6-7)

You can do the same kind of comparison with sink, drop and plunge. Similarly:

Words which in movement, curve flexibly in space (wheel, swing, sweep, bend, swirl, coil, turn, wriggle, fling, lash, swish, meander, curl, spiral, undulate, wave, twirl …) induce a comparable vocal curve, more pronounced than in words where the accompanying movement tends to directness (shoot, stab, poke, prod, pierce, hit cut, hack, chop, tap, dab, rip …). (p. 8)

They conclude “the voice moves as the body moves” (p. 4).


While Burniston and Bell seem to be mostly considering the literal meaning of words, I’m convinced that everything they say applies to the metaphorical meaning too.

Burniston and Bell’s expression “words were endowed with life” interests me because I believe they are saying the same as David Grove’s instruction to facilitators: “Make words physical.” David intuitively knew that (a) our metaphors are derived from our understanding of the body and the workings of the physical world;1 (b) our body is inescapably involved in the production and comprehension of those words; and (c) when this is explicit (though increased body actions or increased awareness) the client is overtly engaging with their metaphor landscape in a way that increases “psychoactivity”.

Also, when David asked his questions (in the early days at least) he not only replicated the client’s exact words he reproduced the way they said them, especially unusual words or idiosyncratic pronunciations. I don’t think his main reason for doing this was to build rapport, I think he was: (a) indicating to the client sub-consciously that he had noted the unusual and idiosyncratic; (b) looking to see if the client’s body responded to his imitation; and (c) intuitively modelling the client through the physical movements required for him to pronounce those words that way.

Coincidently, when Penny Tompkins and I conducted our early training of David Grove’s work (1996-1999) we used to get participants to physically enact the words push and pull. Our aim was for the participants: (a) to notice the kind of push/pull their body used to represent these words (which we guessed would be close to what their body did with micro-muscular movements when they heard a client use these metaphors); (b) to look around the room and see that everyone else was representing the same word differently – some startlingly different! and (c) to notice that when a participant was asked just two or three Clean Language questions of the action, the differences between participants amplified with each question.

Overall, it would seem there is a kinesthetic equivalent to onomatopoeia – a word formed from the sound associated with what is names (e.g., cuckoo, sizzle). It makes sense to me that when a group of people unconsciously agree to use a word they choose one that has a congruence with an action or sound associated with the idea the word is pointing to. It would just ‘feel wrong’ to do anything else. I guess this is why 98% of subjects shown a curved shape figure identify it as ‘bouba’ and a jagged figure as ‘kiki’.2

Another way of looking at this is to realise that human’s are not, as Cliff Richards would have had us believe a “crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll”, we are a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living … fractal. Every utterance, gesture and action is in some ways a microcosm of who we are. And how could it be otherwise? Where would a word or action come from if it did not originate in the current organisation of our mind-body?

As Maria Montessori said in The Absorbent Mind:

Action is no accidental cloak of the idea, but its necessary and essential organ. It serves not only to communicate a complete given thought-content, but is an instrument by means of which this content develops and fully defines itself. (quoted in Burniston and Bell, p. 3)


* plosive, also called stop; in phonetics, a consonant sound characterized by the momentary blocking (occlusion) of some part of the oral cavity. A completely articulated stop usually has three stages: the catch (implosion), or beginning of the blockage; the hold (occlusion); and the release (explosion), or opening of the air passage again. britannica.com

1 This insight has been backed up by extensive research by cognitive linguists, see Zoltan Kovecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.

2 See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect and James Geary, I is Another: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World for a discussion of the ‘bouba-kiki effect’ first discovered by the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in 1929.

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