A thirteenth-century theory of speech
By J. S. Harvey, H. E. Smithson, C. R. Siviour, G. E. M. Gasper, S. O. Sønnesyn, T. C. B. McLeish, and D. M. Howard
The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 146:937 (2019)
Introduction: This paper explores and responds to a historical theory pertaining to the psychology and physiology of speech. This theory was developed in the early thirteenth century, but within it may be found many of the same considerations as those of modern neuroscience—the nature of mental representations, the relationship between those representations and external stimuli, and correspondences between the sensory faculties. Examining this theory, from such a contrasting intellectual context to our own, raises questions of the role of experimentation, observation, and modelling, and what constitutes permissible evidence for supporting or rejecting hypotheses.
Robert Grosseteste (c.1175–1253) was a celebrated medieval thinker, who, as well as writing on philosophy and theology, developed an impressive corpus of treatises on the natural world. Here, we analyze one of these treatises—his text on sound and phonetics: De generatione sonorum (On the Generation of Sounds) (DGS). The DGS was probably written in the first decade of the thirteenth century, several centuries before the apparent “scientific revolution” in Early Modern Europe. It was a formative period, however, for the development of European scientific thought, during which the reception of Greek natural philosophy, enabled by their transmission, translations, and commentary from Arabic and Greek into Latin, prompted new conceptual frameworks for the consideration of natural phenomena. For modern science, reading medieval works presents several significant challenges, starting not least with that of editions and translations. This analysis of the DGS has only been possible through interdisciplinary collaboration between science and humanities scholars, resulting in the compilation of a new critical edition and translation of the text.
Top Image: An early 14th-century portrait of Grosseteste