When the Duke of Sussex heard about the Supreme Court judgment revoking the ruling in Roe vs Wade, ‘His reaction last week was guttural, like mine,’ said his wife Meghan Markle. ‘Men need to be vocal in this moment,’ she told Vogue magazine. If we are to take her at her word, the Duchess of Sussex was saying that Prince Harry vocalised his reaction by growling. This sounds quite unlikely. But she added that her reaction was the same.
It is impossible not to wonder whether she meant that theirs was a gut reaction. Of course one can say gut reaction, but it is impossible to say a reaction is gut. You can say that it is gutsy, but that has a different meaning from ‘heart-felt immediacy’. So the Duchess reached for guttural, which already has a meaning, referring to the throat.
In The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the narrator takes captive one of the ‘savages’ that he has not shot dead only to find that ‘his speech was so odd, all gutturals, and he spoke in the throat in such a hollow, odd manner, that we could never form a word after him; and we were all of the opinion that they might speak that language as well if they were gagged as otherwise; nor could we perceive that they had any occasion either for teeth, tongue, lips, or palate, but formed their words just as a hunting-horn forms a tune with an open throat’. So there would not have been much point in asking him his opinion of Roe vs Wade.
There has long been a prejudice that accords to growliness of speech a primitive, doggish quality. ‘R is the Dogs Letter, and hurreth in the sound,’ wrote Ben Jonson 400 years ago, though as a classicist he was taking his cue not from listening to fellow speakers but from Aulus Persius Flaccus (who died AD 62). Persius warned of the dangers of growling out the canina littera and coming out with the biting truth.
The littera canina, the canine letter R, is not, though, made in the throat in English, nor I think was it in Latin. It is the French who have enthusiastically taken up a guttural rendition of the R.
None of this would be the sort of thing that the Duchess meant to suggest. A word that covers her sense would be visceral. Psychologists have even spoken of the visceral brain, which is said to ‘mediate bodily activity, especially visceral activity, in response to emotion’. That seems to fit in nicely with the approved concept of lived experience.
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