Language is a form of music that is more or less pleasant to the ear. I recoil from brassy bombast, the dull clang of cliché, the reediness of needy self-affirmation. The other day I heard someone reading a poem on the BBC World Service (radio) and couldn’t bear its hammy affectation. The female poet gently and horribly e-x-a-g-g-e-r-a-t-e-d each word as though her susurrous tone would magic more meaning out of the thing. But there are certain voices that are painfully beautiful. They resonate with a subtle thrum of earnestness. Their pitch seems in tune with a universal key of acoustic integrity.
Unfortunately, human voices are usually too exaggerated to be beautiful: with the forcefulness of opinion, the bluster of assertion. Or else, they are a staccato of doubt, a legato of drivel, an agitato of overexcitement. There is one woefully under-appreciated utterance, however, whose mellifluous expression is free of psychological distortion: the sigh.
I grew up in a household of creaky floors, slamming doors and draughty sighs. Even my beloved dog was constantly at it, heaving away on his favourite chair in the hallway. But I appreciated this form of unspoken discourse. My family’s sighs were honest utterances and far less flatulent than their usual dinner-table conversation. I soon learned to distinguish between the many sighs in their impressive repertoires. There was the exclamatory sigh; this was theatrically exuded in the presence of others and intended to initiate conversation (“What’s wrong?”). There was the long, drawn-out groan; this signified looming despair and continued into a gargling growl once the air was expelled. There was the musicalized, heavily aspirated sigh; this would be wrung out in a hum (to try to keep a fading good mood going). And then there was the purest sigh of all: a sudden, shocked intake of air followed by a faintly audible exhalation, a stream of steaming sadness that dissolved into a momentary death wheeze.
A sigh is a psychic fart, an expulsion of gaseous build-up. It is one of the few ways in which the brain can instantaneously rid itself of tension and relieve itself of sadness. If only the brain could digest sense and metabolize meaning as efficiently as its intestinal counterpart converts food into nutrition and energy.
It is interesting to note that many words for sighs are onomatopoeic-sounding. If there is one word that should sonically represent the thing it bespeaks, it is the sigh. Sigh itself is a solid word for the job: a dash of sibilance slipping into a garble of gutturally mixed vowels. But I was always jealous of the superior-sounding French soupir, and by extension the other Romance sighs. Sigh is a sudden gust of wind but soupir is a mollifying breeze. The German seufzer sounds good to me if a little parochial. The Lithuanian atsidusti is perfect in its plosive mournfulness. And I don’t speak much in the way of Russian, but vzdokh sounds like a conversation-stopping outburst of sonic vomit. Full stop.
I used to dream of compiling a compendium of sighs but my knowledge of music simply isn’t good enough to describe them in all their complexity. It would take a musicologist to do justice to the vast range and subtlety of sighs being perpetually emitted: in traffic along with the exhaust fumes, tailing off in mid-sentence at work, walking through a park with the wind rushing through the trees.
B’s brother, for example, was an undeservedly proud and arrogant man. He would unknowingly transform his sighs into spirally melodic refrains that always stuttered out the same deceptive sentiment: I-am-not-really-sad.
My poor mother now suspires almost completely in sighs (a long life of denial will do that to you). J’s sighs are incongruously perky and sing-song. H’s sighs are muffled heartfelt howls. G’s sighs ooze airy despair. M’s sighs are still trying to find their way. As for myself, my voluminous emissions are by now whirling around the arctic circle, probably tormenting a sad polar bear adrift on a solitary ice floe.
Sighs do not merely leak out of people. If you listen carefully, you can discern them everywhere. I love sighs because they express a modicum of recognition on the part of nature for all the senseless suffering it inflicts on its offspring. It never fails to amaze me but even dogs sigh. Sometimes, it seems, everything does.