At the beginning of every semester, I tell my students: there is a world of difference between hearing music and listening to it. Emphatically despite the fact that “hear” and “listen” are often used interchangeably in casual speech, as though they were exact synonyms. In fact, they mean two completely different – although not entirely unrelated – things.
I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life thinking about language and trying to understand its expressive range, the better to express myself. I’ve noticed that transitive verbs do not carry the same weight – are not charged with the same energy – as intransitive verbs. Did any of your English teachers ever tell you that? Mine didn’t: I had to discover it for myself.
Let me illustrate: We regularly hear music, but we also occasionally listen to music. The transitive verb requires a direct object to complete its meaning; the intransitive verb is complete in itself (hence its greater potency), and the prepositional phrase that follows adds no weight to the verb: it simply brings the verb’s activity to a focus.
The difference in energy between transitive and intransitive verbs is faithfully reflected in our daily experience. Taking the illustrative case I’ve offered above, consider the fact that hearing is an altogether passive experience which might actually be described as a condition, often ignored and therefore mostly registered unconsciously; every animal with ears has pretty much the same experience of hearing, assuming similar auditory capacities. (There are interesting differences, of course: dogs can hear at least an octave higher than humans, and humpback whales and elephants can communicate in wavelengths much longer than those available to us.) The capacity – the sense – known as hearing is our ability to register physical phenomena in a way that’s available only to an exquisitely fine-tuned nervous system, by means of equipment (eardrums, etc.) that can respond to (resonate with) disturbances in some fluid medium such as air or water. The old conundrum, “if a tree falls in a completely unpopulated forest, does it make a sound?” is thus answered: sound is the name we give to that nervous-system registering, that experience of a disturbance in air or water. Where there is no experience, i.e. no experiencer, there is no sound.
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