Having said that the word ‘voice’ is multifaceted, it might be helpful now to differentiate between some of these usages. As a first step, we can distinguish between literal and metaphorical usages. A metaphor is a type of figurative language that describes one thing by comparing it to another thing. We find explicit forms of comparison in similes, which include words such as ‘like’ or ‘as’. But metaphors omit the ‘like’ or ‘as’ stage, and foreground the common qualities of the things compared in a way that is sometimes striking, but sometimes so ‘natural’ as to be unremarkable.
When we are reading poetry, we may be more self-consciously on the alert for figurative language in general, and thus metaphors specifically. For example, D.H. Lawrence, evoking an Italian evening in his poem ‘Bat’, refers to ‘the tired flower of Florence’ (Muldoon, 1997, p. 95); in comparing the city to a flower he implies a shared quality of beauty, and perhaps also – more unexpectedly – fragility.
But everyday language is full of metaphor, too. When we talk about ‘the leg of a table’ or a ‘branch of an organisation’, we are using metaphors probably without noticing them, because they have become such familiar elements in our language. ‘Voice’ is often used in this everyday, metaphorical sense. We’ll pause on this point so that you can consider it for yourself.
In each of the sentences below, decide whether the word ‘voice’ is used literally or metaphorically:
- (a) He spoke in a soft, soothing voice.
- (b) The members spoke with one voice in rejecting the new proposal.
- (c) Tenor voices are in short supply in our local choir.
- (d) We were startled by the sudden voice of thunder.
- (e) I had a bad bout of laryngitis and lost my voice.
- (f) I took a creative writing course and found my voice.
When we’re trying to pin down literal uses of the word ‘voice’, we’re on the lookout for meanings where a connection with sounds and vocal organs is not too far away. Sentence (a) fits this requirement clearly, and so does (e). I’ve also included sentence (c) in my list of literal usages, although ‘voice’ here is acquiring a more specialised musical sense.
What about sentences (b), (d) and (f)? Noticing the reference to speech in sentence (b), we might be inclined to think that ‘voice’ is used literally here, too. But since people (plural) can’t actually speak with one voice (singular), I think we’re in the realms of comparison: several or many people are speaking as if they just have one voice between them – that is, unanimously. In sentence (d) we have a clear connection with sound – but this particular sound isn’t produced through vocal organs, so I’d choose metaphorical rather than literal for the ‘voice of thunder’. That leaves us with sentence (f), and here ‘voice’ seems to be related to expressing oneself in writing rather than through speech, so again the usage seems more metaphorical than literal.
There is much more that could be said about voices in the literal sense, including the way that they convey individuality, but for now we will continue to explore different usages of ‘voice’ by turning our attention to metaphorical usage.
Think for a moment about the list of phrases below. Some of them may be familiar, some unfamiliar. Starting from what you know, or might guess, about the phrases, can you spot any links or common features? (If you are a keen internet user, and have time to dot his, you might try typing any of the unfamiliar ones into a search engine to see what comes up.)
- (a) The voice of the people
- (b) Vox populi
- (c) The voice of the oppressed
- (d) The Voice of America
- (e) American Voice.
‘The voice of the people’ is a widely used phrase in which ‘voice’ generally means the expressed opinion – often a political opinion – of a group of people viewed as a united whole.
‘Vox populi’ is the Latin version of ‘voice of the people’. We often hear it in its abbreviated form, ‘vox pop’ – a broadcasting term used to refer to interviews with the general public, or the ‘man/woman in the street’. Both these phrases, like sentence (b) in the previous activity, attribute a single voice to a group of people; although ‘vox pop’ interviews present us with individuals, they are usually anonymous, seen as representatives of ‘the people’ in general.
The same idea of ‘representation’ crops up in phrase (c), ‘the voice of the oppressed’. This is a more specialised phrase that we might find in certain kinds of political writings, sometimes in variant versions such as ‘a voice for the oppressed’ or ‘giving voice to the oppressed’. The difference here is that ‘the oppressed’ are usually conceived of as not having voices, so someone else must speak for them, or create the conditions in which they can be heard.
Some of you may have recognised ‘The Voice of America’ as the name of the official radio and television broadcasting service of the United States government. ‘American Voice’ is also the name of a radio network, a self-styled alternative to the government’s service.
In phrases (d) and (e) the concept of ‘voice’ is very firmly linked to broadcast media, as well as to a political context. Political and/or media associations have cropped up in all our examples here, suggesting that the idea of ‘voice’ has considerable potency in relation to representation, rights of expression and means of expression.