Well over a year ago, I commented on the increasing trend of people critiquing politicians on the basis of their accent. One such person whom I missed at the time, was Dean Frenkel, a throat singer by trade who applied his singing skills to voice coaching around six years ago. He now sees himself as qualified to analyse the speech style of anyone, including politicians. As Michelle Grattan wrote for The Age in June last year:

Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne is a nasal speaker who seems pompous but is surprisingly effective. ”He could have an after-politics job as a voice-over for irritating commercials.”

It now appears that Dean Frenkel has been hitting the media again lately, apparently to spruik a new (self-published) book in which he expands his scholarly repertoire even further, by seeking to explain the evolutionary origins of language. Let me stress that Dean Frenkel is a singer. His closest academic involvement with the topic is that he has a graduate degree of some description in anthropology.

As part of the publicity for his book Evolution of speech, Frenkel has appeared on Late Night Live with Philip Adams, and has had another article written largely about him (ostensibly about the speech of Ted Baillieu and Daniel Andrews) in The Age. With some colleagues, I purchased a copy of said book and will duly dissect it another time. For the moment I want to concentrate on the complete nonsense that Frenkel has been spouting on radio.

The interview with Philip Adams was a chummy affair; the two appear to be close friends on-air as Adams has played his music to his ‘gladdies and poddies’ on many occasions. The entire interview can be listened to on the Late Night Live website or downloaded. The quotes below are from my own transcription and have been edited slightly to make them readable (ums and ahs have been removed, as well as false starts, mostly).

Adams begins by asking Frenkel about the theory that language has its roots in Africa.

Oh it did indeed, and very few people know this, and it’s funny, I’ve asked an audience of 300 people, where was speech invented? Amazing silence, no one answered. And when you think about it, speech was obviously invented in Africa, more than 70,000 years ago because speech travelled around the world with the first great migrants and speech wouldn’t ever have, I mean we’ve never heard of a tribe that doesn’t speak, so every single culture has speech and it has many many implications.

That language began in Africa is a fairly uncontroversial fact that is entailed by the premise that language arose at least 100,000 years ago (according to some estimates) and that Homo Sapiens Sapiens migrated from Africa more recently. I’ll ignore the fact that Frenkel describes this as ‘invention’ and concentrate on the points he makes.

Frenkel goes on to explain what evolutionary developments allowed for the ‘invention’ of speech.

About a million years ago humans became bipedal, and by becoming bipedal, i.e. standing on two legs, our voices, our voice boxes dropped and that gave us room to be able to articulate.

Adams exclaims ‘we stood up and our voice boxes dropped?’

That’s exactly right: Gravity dropped our articulator muscles so when we were on all fours, if you’ve ever tried talking on all fours, it’s actually not so easy.

There are three things that are seriously wrong with this. The first is that humans didn’t exist a million years ago; they appeared around 200,000 years ago. The second is that Homo Erectus, likely the first homonid species that lived the majority of its time on the ground in a bipedal manner, arose much earlier than a million years ago; closer to two million. The last, most laughable and possibly most egregious error is the idea that gravity was the motivating factor in the lowering of the larynx. No one really knows what caused the larynx to drop and there are several theories going around, but there wouldn’t be a scientist in the world who would attribute it to the gravitational pull of the Earth on the relatively massless larynx.

Another theory of Frenkel’s regards the evolutionary interrelatedness of singing and language. When asked what came first, singing or ‘talking’, Frenkel – a singer, remember – has no reservation in making a decision.

Without a doubt, singing. We needed to train our articulator muscles to be able to actually work and even though we had them, and singing was one of those activities that gave us control over pitch, it gave us control of the breathing involved in speech. But singing didn’t give us articulation because there was nothing to articulate, so other things like whistling like click language, which is still practised in parts of Africa, and even harmonic singing. In order to actually get every letter phoneme and word out, we needed to be able to have precise and incremental control.

I’m not going to dissect this too closely, mostly because there are a lot of garbled thoughts. Suffice to say that it shows a complete disregard for the concept of scientific rationalism and empiricism. Frenkel clearly believes singing came first because he’s a singer, but given his evidence – that we needed singing to train our articulator muscles – there’s nothing to say that it didn’t happen in exactly the opposite way. That is, perhaps we gained control over our articulators while developing language to the point where we could use them for other activities, like singing. Again, the truth is that we simply don’t know, and for Frenkel to claim that there is no doubt about the issue is either disingenuous or an indication that he is entirely untrained in this particular topic and in the scientific method in general.

Frenkel also illuminates us as to the linguistic abilities of Homo Neanderthalensis, and finally answers a question that has plagued evolutionary anthropologists ever since the Neanderthal was discovered; whether they could speak.

Well they had very much the same infrastructure as we had; they had the fundamental ability to speak. They probably had heavier tongues, and a little bit cheekily I reckon they didn’t talk, because, and they didn’t sing, because singing wasn’t macho enough. And maybe they go [grunting Neanderthal-like] Hoo Hoo Hoo and in order to turn Hoo into articulation you need very very fine movements, and there’s not other animal that I understand apart from the bird that actually has the ability of the tongue to articulate.

Yet again, Frenkel is making wild speculation about a topic that is barely explained by science, injecting into his answer complete fabrications such as the implication that Neanderthals were concerned with appearing less macho and the assumption, discussed above, that singing is a necessary precursor to language, and a gross misunderstanding of what speech is – he says Neanderthals had the ability to speak but simultaneously reckons they didn’t talk.

This last point brings up an issue that pervades everything I’ve read of Frenkel, including his book, and all his radio and other media interviews; he makes a distinction between ‘speech’ and ‘language’ but never clearly defines either. I doubt that he’s talking about ‘language’ versus ‘speech’ in the manner that Stephen Fry famously parodied in a sketch with Hugh Laurie, wherein language is to chess as speech is to a game of chess, alluding to the Saussurian division. It appears as though he intends ‘speech’ to mean any noise which uses the mouth, while ‘language’ is a matter he doesn’t concern himself with. I will have more to say about this on another occasion when I discuss his book, in which he says that “language owes its very existence to speech” (p. 6).

When Frenkel and Adams talk about more phonetically related areas, it becomes clear that he similarly lacks training, or in some cases, common sense. For example, Frenkel believes that whistling is a necessary precursor to being able to articulate the labio-velar approximant “w”.

There’s a whole stack of things going on with the lips including all the W‑words, and so um, and, if we didn’t use, and in fact Arnie [Frenkel’s solitary voice coachee], for a long time there was told that he wasn’t allowed to whistle when he was young and that meant that he wasn’t able to say any words with the letter W in it. And I was starting to try to teach him how to whistle and I got into trouble because whistling is frivolous. And so, that was one really amazing thing, and there are so many components to speech.

As an aside, around the corner from my office is the phonetics laboratory. Not being a phonetician, I thought I’d check with them before writing anything about this, and they had conniptions of disbelief. It is plainly untrue that whistling is a necessary skill to be able to produce the w sound. Think about it: how many people do you know who cannot whistle? I bet you they still have no issue saying ‘whistle’. Learning how to whistle might probably help someone learn how to articulate the w sound, but – and I’m no speech pathologist – I didn’t think that the inability to articulate the w sound was even a thing!

For the last few minutes of the interview, Philip Adams asks Dean Frenkel about the respective speech styles of several politicians, including Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, Joe Hockey, Penny Wong and Peter Garrett. I won’t reproduce them all – listen to the interview yourself if you’re that interested in hearing Frenkel’s unqualified opinions – so I’ll stick with one.

Julia [Gillard] interestingly, she’s got two or three really unfortunate speech traits that have been exacerbated while she’s been Prime Minister. Mostly she’s actually a remarkably good speaker; she hardly ever stumbles, but those two or three problems dominate the impression, and so I constantly hear people saying ‘she’s a terrible speaker’ but it’s actually not the case. She’s mostly good, it’s only a little bit bad which makes her seem terrible.

I don’t have too much to complain about with respect to this particular point apart from that it’s an ineffectual musing from someone who doesn’t have any verifiable evidence to justify his claims.

At the heart of my dissatisfaction with this entire fiasco is that Frenkel has managed to propel himself into the media’s spotlight without so much as a shred of credibility in any of these topics. This isn’t to say he’s not an excellent voice coach; he may well be, but he’s certainly not a linguist or speech pathologist and so he should refrain from claiming to have answers to such questions as the evolution of language, the development of the vocal tract, the linguistic ability of Neanderthals or the entire field of phonetics. Phoneticians undergo years of training in order to be able to comment on phonetics, as do evolutionary anthropologists and historical linguists. Giving Frenkel and people like him airtime cheapens our entire field.

The ABC and The Age should in future ask any such self-purported ‘experts’ for their credentials, or evidence to support their claims before they put them on the air, in print or online. I’ve let Philip Adams off lightly here – I could have taken issue with his failure to adequately question Frenkel or the fact that he wrote a preface to his book. I even ignored the question Adams asked that seems to have been directly lifted from Frenkel’s press release; these things probably happen all the time in journalism and it would be unfair to single Adams out for it.

I will end by saying that I take no issue with Frenkel having opinions about politicians’ speech styles, or working as a voice coach, even publishing a book on voice coaching using the possibly novel approach of applying singing techniques. However, this does not grant him license to make huge statements that are just untrue and not backed up by any evidence.

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