Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Speech and Drama
GA 282

XVII. Further Study of the Sounds of Speech

21 September 1924, Dornach

My dear Friends,

In times past when men had a more intense, but of course still instinctive, feeling of what it is in man that reveals itself in his speaking, they were aware of the process that does actually take place in the forming of speech, a process that consists in the astral body laying hold—quite simply—of the etheric. today we speak and talk, knowing no more of what is going on within us at the time than we do in regard to any other of our actions; for of the complicated inner processes that accompany all human activities we are quite unaware. And it is of course only right that we do not watch our actions too closely while we are doing them, or they would lose their spontaneity. But one who sets out to be an artist in the forming of speech and in the use of mime and gesture must learn to recognise how astral body and ether body have here found their way into an independent co-operation; at any rate, during the time of his training the reality of this should be constantly present to his consciousness. The artist must have felt—I do not say he must have seen, but he must have experienced in feeling what it means when we say that through the working together of astral body and ether body a second man has been begotten within us, has been set free within us, and lives in speech.

The life that now makes its appearance is, however, so richly and delicately formed within that it is in fact difficult for us to perceive how, over and above the content of our speaking, something is detaching itself from us in the whole body of the speech; and that is why it is so important that during his training the student should learn to apprehend what is happening here with his speaking, apprehending it with the insight of an artist. For he can do so; and it will help him more than anything else to make his speaking inwardly strong and mobile. With this end in view, let him practise his exercises as far as possible as though he were a person who cannot speak but wants to. This is a situation that can well occur in life, for it is only in connection with other human beings that we ever learn to speak.

There have been not a few instances in history of persons who have grown up in solitude, living almost the life of a wild animal. Such persons, in spite of possessing good and sound organs both for hearing and for speaking, have yet not learned to speak. If in course of time someone discovered them, he was bound to assume that they could quite well have learned to speak, and had only not done so because they were not together with other human beings.

It has generally been found, however, that human beings left in this way in solitude do make a kind of modest attempt at speaking. They will produce some such sounds as hum, ham, häm, him—that is to say, the sound h swept along into the production of gesture with some rather undefined vowel sound in between. And on investigating this groping attempt at speech, we find that as we boom out this sound-sequence, we can become conscious of how our astral body is here seizing hold of our ether body. Try uttering again and again these sounds: hum, ham, häm and so on, and you will feel as though something were liberating itself from you and living purely in vibrations. If you were to introduce this as an exercise in schools of dramatic art, and have the pupils booming out hm, it would create a most singular impression; you would feel as though a great buzzing were rising up out of you all, like an independent entity on its own. Anyone who has had this experience will readily agree that we have here an excellent first exercise for the forming of speech.

Let your students begin with practising: hm, hum, ham, häm, and it will bring movement into their speaking.

hm, hum, ham, häm.

They must of course then go on to something else; for if they continued with that exercise alone, you would be leaving them in the condition of savages. The point is, that for their start they should go back to the first elements where speech begins to free itself, begins to come forth from the human being.

Let me say here, in parenthesis, that one should not of course use this method with children. It has no pedagogical value. As soon as we begin to study things with the eye of an artist, it becomes necessary to make a clear distinction between the different spheres of life. Anthroposophy never tends to disturb or confuse the different kinds of human activity; on the contrary it assigns to each its proper sphere, and furthers its growth and progress in that sphere.

And now, how shall we continue our instruction? We have in the course of these lectures learned to distinguish among the consonants’ impact’ or ‘thrust’ sounds, and then again ‘breath’ or ‘blown’ sounds. We become either throwers of the spear (in the impact sounds) or trumpeters (in the breath sounds). In between we have the ‘wave’ sound l, and the trembling or ‘vibrating’ sound r in its various forms—the palatal r, the tongue r. These two come in between.

Now it is important to see what lies behind this grouping of the consonants For it is no arbitrary grouping, made to fit into some scheme. It is derived from the speech organism, and a fact of far-reaching significance lies behind it.

When we speak, we ‘form’ the air. This is true of all speaking of whatever kind or quality: we speak by forming the air. And we form it in ever so many different ways. Now you can get a magnificent feeling of this forming of the air, if you repeat over and over again hm, hum, ham. For you have here what I might describe as speech in full swing. Once you have experienced the great swing of speech, you will feel as you go through the impact sounds—d, t, b, p, g, k, m, n—that when you come to say hm, you would really like to achieve at long last the actual push or impact, you would like to take yourself with the hm right into it. And at the same time you can feel that you want to mould the body of the air out there in front of you to an enclosed form or figure. And you are really wanting to do this, not only with m but with all the sounds that I have named in this left-hand column (see page 378). You do not quite succeed; the endeavour shows itself only in nascent condition. Nevertheless, in the case of all these sounds there is the desire on our part to enter with them into the enclosed form that is taking shape out there in the air. As we utter these’ impact’ sounds, we feel we would like to mould the air to a complete and shut-in form. And now we can well imagine we want to go farther and see what these forms are like.

When we form the sound d, we are really wanting to form in the air a figure rather like a kind of runnel which we hold up before us like this, so that it is closed in front. That is the kind of form we want to be making as we say d.


When we say b, it is as though we were wanting to make an enclosed form rather like a little ship.


With k, we have the definite feeling of wanting to form with our speech something like a tower or pyramid


With all these sounds we are conscious of a desire to harden the air. What we would like best of all is that the air would crystallise for us. We have indeed clearly the feeling, as we utter the sounds, that actual bodily forms are there before us spirting up into the air; and we are even surprised that these forms do not begin to fly about. As we come to feel our speaking, we are astonished that when we put forth all our strength, we cannot see b and p, d and t, g and k flying about around us, that we cannot see ms flying about like spirals or ns like the curled-up tails that animals sometimes have. We are quite astonished that this does not happen. For the remarkable thing is that these impact sounds, although we form them in the air, have all the time an inclination to the earth element. With these sounds, in fact, we work right into that which is earth in the world of the elements; they are proper to the element of earth. (See table on page 378.) And from this correspondence of impact sounds with the element of earth we can learn something that will be most useful for us in our study of speech.

For if, as we speak k, we imagine before us a crystal form shaped somewhat like a tower, if we hold this form clearly before our mind's eye, that will do a great deal towards purifying our utterance of the sound. It will also make supple the organs we use in speaking the sound. And we shall find it a wonderful help if while speaking the sound m we imagine a climbing plant—some variety of bindweed, for example—that twines itself round the stem of another plant.


And then for n, we cannot do better than think of the woodruff, with its wreath of petals at the top of the stem.


Thus, to find the inner content of impact sounds, we have to go to the earth, we have to conjure it forth from the element of earth.

Suppose you want, for example, to get to know more intimately the inner configuration of the sound p. Call up before your mind's eye the sunflower plant, that bold-faced annual that lifts itself up to such a height. Look at its enormous overhanging golden flowers that spread out their centres so conspicuously for all to see. There you have the sound p most marvellously displayed.

To call forth from the forms and shapes in which the earth element manifests, to conjure up from them the impact sounds, will bring our speaking a stage onward. And then, what this exercise does for us will have to be brought into the lovely and smooth-running flow of speech. Let me show you how this can be achieved.

Think of the pyramid, which so well expresses a k; for as we say k, we live—in speech—in the pyramid Now let the pyramid fall down and crumble to dust. This will mean, we let the k sound pass over into the l sound, and do you see? What before was solid and firm, is now all in flow, runs away like water. k–l—it runs away like water. What is it in a Keil (a wedge) that makes it of value for you? A wedge that won't wedge itself in, a wedge that doesn't run in has no sense. The k is right too, for a wedge has a shape like a pyramid when you stand it up on end; but the main point for you about a wedge is that it slips in easily. Keil—the word is marvellously pregnant of meaning. Speak the word, and feel at the same time what the Keil does, feel the cleft it makes as it eases its way in. Feel then also how the firm solid element meets with hindrances as it goes over into flow, and how these find expression in the vowel, in the ei. In truth, a wonderful word! You can do the same with all the impact sounds. Bring them together with l, and you will find you are bringing them into a right and beautiful flow of speech.

You can also go the other way about, you can begin with something that is in flow and arrest it, establish it Practise saying the word Diele (a deal or plank). It flows in the mouth wonderfully. And now take it backwards. Set out with what is living and in flow, and carry it into the earth element, letting it become fast and firm. Diele reversed takes on a most beautiful form: Lied (a song). The song, to begin with, lives—in the soul; it is then given form, and wrought into a poem: Lied. You should learn to feel what lies behind these transitions from one sound to another.

Take now the sound t and follow it with an l. T expresses a hardening, a making firm; and then what has been made firm goes sloping away in l. In the word Tal (a dale or valley) you have a wonderful picture of this process. The land that has been pressed down hard runs out on to the plain below.

Now reverse the process. Take what is in flow and make it firm; and you have a Latte (a lath).


The sap in the living wood is in flow, and becomes hardened in the lath. Going through a word in this way, entering right into the feeling of each sound in turn, you come at last to the word's own secret.

Suppose now we go through the same process as we did with Keil, but take this time some tool we can manipulate by ourselves and turn easily in any direction. For a wedge, we usually require of course the help of a hammer; now we will take instead a tool with which we can make nearer contact—the one I have in mind is actually rather like a little boat that we can steer whither we will: Beil (an axe). The word answers well to the description and demonstrates quite clearly the difference between k and b.

Now take Beil backwards. Begin with the flow and then make it fast. Instead of bringing your axe into swing, you now bring what is alive into form, enclosing it in firm form—and you have Leib (a body).

Continued practice in uniting impact sounds with the wave sound 1 will work wonders for you. Your speaking will have clearly defined contours, and will at the same time flow well; your words will be formed and finished and yet follow one another in the sentence with ease and fluency.

From now on, therefore, let this association of impact sounds with the wave sound l be designated as the ‘Stoss-Wellen’ (Impact-Wave,—‘press-home and let-flow’). For special attention should be given to this sound-process in speech training. Students can learn from it how to form and frame their single words and at the same time also how to bring them into flow, so that the whole sentence runs like a smoothly flowing stream. All this can be learned from the practice of ‘Stoss-Wellen.’ To describe things of this kind, we have, you see, to look round for new expressions.

Taking our start in this way from impact sounds and going on to 1, we find that we have passed from earth to water. For in the impact sounds we have the element of earth and in l that which essentially signifies the fluid element, water. You can even hear in the sound an imitation of water. But now let us suppose that water becomes so tenuous that it begins to vibrate and quiver inwardly; in effect, we begin to find ourselves in the element of air. The water is evaporating, is turning gaseous, is wanting all the time to pass into the inwardly aeriform condition. This means, we are no longer satisfied to remain in the perpetual inner flow of the watery element; the inner vibration of air must now begin for us. We have this in the sound r. The air that we use for speaking, vibrates inwardly in r. R belongs to the element of air.

Imagine you have a box in front of you. You open it, hoping to find in it a present from a friend. You feel sure there is something really exciting in that box. You open it—and there is nothing there, nothing at all! And all that flow of feeling in you (l) evaporates. Before, the moisture on your tongue had been all in movement. You open the box, and air comes to meet you, nothing but quivering air. You exclaim: Leer!1Pronounce like our word ‘lair’, but letting the r vibrate. (empty). In this word leer the whole course of your experience is described—even to your starting-back which is so forcibly expressed in the double e. It would indeed be impossible to find a more adequate description of your disappointment than is given in this gesture ... and this word leer. Gesture and word taken together reproduce the experience with marvellous accuracy.

A great deal can be learned by observing words in this manner; continuing in such a study, the actor will be able to fulfil with freedom and fluency all that is required of him.

And now let us suppose that we take this vibration, this quivering, and form it, out there in the air. You will soon see what happens if you study a trumpet, not of course the metal part, but what goes on inside the trumpet when you blow. Study this carefully. Provide yourself with a highly sensitive thermometer and see what it will reveal inside the trumpet, when the vibration begins to assume forms and figures corresponding to certain tones. You will find different temperatures registered in different parts of the trumpet. This is as much as to say that the processes taking place in the trumpet express themselves in the element of fire. And the same is true of all breath sounds. When we utter feelingly the sounds: h, eh, j, sch, s, f, w, we are taken over into the element of fire or warmth. For these sounds live in the element of warmth.

You will also see from this what happens when you say hum. You set out from the warmth element; you are working, to begin with, with your own warmth. In the h you release your warmth, you let it out. Then you catch hold of what you have placed outside you and feel it as a consolidation of your being, of your whole being: hum. You take hold of your warmth and make it fast and firm: hum, ham, and so on.

Again, suppose you want to picture something that is alive, that has life in itself and is ready to go on living on its own. Continued practice with ‘breath’ or ‘blown’ sounds will bring you this experience. Words that have only such consonants are not so frequently met with, because what is alive is not posited by us as easily as are fixed objects; nevertheless you will find them here and there, where something that is outside in space is pictured as alive and unstable; and here you will again have opportunity to make interesting studies. Say, you want to express that an object is alive, but its life is uneasy, is precarious. You may describe the object as schief (aslant, on the incline).2Schief (pronounced like our word’ sheaf’) is the word used to describe the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The word itself suggests that the object could at any moment—instead of remaining in life—fall over and come to grief: schief.

Suppose, however, you want, on the other hand, to consolidate what is alive and mobile. Then you will have to see how you can make stand up straight something that is naturally, of itself, full of weaving, flowing life. Imagine before you a form. At first it is a tiny little form. It grows and grows; it rises, runs up higher and higher and becomes eventually quite tall. But now you want to express that the living, weaving form has shot up in a line. You say it is schlank (lank or slender). You begin with the sch, which tells of life, and go into the l (flowing), and then, with the k, which makes the life stand up in a straight line, you come back in the end to an impact sound.

There is still another transition that should without fail be practised by any student who wants to form his speech artistically. For he will want to be able to speak so that his speaking streams out over the audience. He will not attain this by concentrating on the individual sounds he has to utter; rather does it depend on the whole general character he is able to give to his speaking.

For an actor, this is obviously a matter of first importance. His words must penetrate to the farthest limits of the theatre, they must become a living presence throughout the space of the auditorium. This result can be achieved by the following exercise; and he who knows it will find himself in possession of an esoteric secret of the art of speech. The exercise consists in letting the vibrating air move on into breath sounds, thus: Reihe, reihen, reich, rasch, Reis, reif.

And supposing you want the very sound itself to have a hypnotising effect, you can do as the lawyer did of whom we were speaking yesterday, who advised his client to say: veiw. A fine and delicate perception lies behind the use of this sound-sequence in the piece we were studying yesterday. It is, I may say, quite wonderful how many features and details in those old plays, features that were of course introduced quite instinctively, are in perfect accord with the laws of human life.

And so, in order that our speaking shall mould the sentence plastically, we must learn to form in it especially the sounds that belong to earth and water; and for our speaking to be alive and effective we must learn to give form to the air- and fire-sounds—the air-sound r and the breath sounds. I do not mean to imply that what we say will have to be expressed with these sounds. But by practising sound sequences that contain earth sounds and the water sound, we can learn to form a sentence so that it has an inner plastic force; and we can on the other hand learn how to speak impressively, so that we may with comparative certainty assume that what we say has penetrated, has gone home, by practising the exercise I gave just now, the exercise that goes between the air sound r and the fire sounds. The actor will need to develop his speaking in both these directions: he must speak beautifully, and he must also impress his listener. And I have given you here the technique whereby he can learn both.

There is still another thing which is necessary for one who wants to make progress in the forming of speech. He has to acquire the faculty of carrying into the realm of the intimate every feeling or impression that is awakened in him from without; he must be able to bring it right home to himself in an intimate way. Let me make this clear by an example.

Take the sensation that many of you are experiencing in these days when the ‘inner configuration of the air’ in this lecture room forces itself upon your notice. Some of you, I know, feel it distinctly uncomfortable. We will take the most simple and primitive sensation that someone may have. He perceives that it is hot in here—with all the other feelings that can go with this experience. Or let us say that for his feeling the room is warm—simply warm.

Now, anyone who has interested himself at all in the forming of speech will know that a word like ‘warm’ can be spoken in a variety of ways. You are probably familiar with the delightful little story illustrative of the saying: Der Ton macht die Musik.3It's the tone that makes the music. Little Itzig writes home to his father: ‘Dear Father, send me a gulden!’ The father cannot read, so takes the letter to a notary who reads out to him in a peremptory, rude tone of voice: ‘Dear Father, send me a gulden!’ ‘Whatever next! The good-for-nothing little scamp will get no money out of me, if he writes like that! Is that really what he says?' But now the poor father cannot after all find it in his heart to leave the matter at that, so he goes to the parson. The parson takes the letter and reads out to him in a gentle, quiet tone : ‘Dear Father, send me a gulden!’ ‘Is that really what he says?’ ‘Certainly!’ replies the parson. ‘The dear little fellow, I'll send him one right away!’ Yes, everything depends, you see, on the tone of voice! Similarly, the word `warm' can be spoken in many different ways. But, my dear friends, if that is so, we must be able to bring into the sounds of the word all the different fine shades of feeling that we want to express. And that has to be learned; we have to learn how to do it.

Let us return to our supposition that someone feels the room warm. (I choose this for my example, since I have a suspicion that quite a number of you may be experiencing this feeling at the present moment.) And now let him follow the experience back into the subjective. Let us imagine he shuts his eyes, forgets there are other people around him and says to himself: Es saust (I feel a buzzing or whizzing sensation in my head!). He calls the ‘being warm’ a sensation of buzzing because he can feel it like that when he withdraws into himself and experiences it subjectively. Try to distinguish different kinds of buzzing that you can experience. When you are very cold, you feel inside you quite another kind. One could imagine, it might almost become a habit to have, when the room is warm, this inner sensation of buzzing.

warm: a buzzing sensation.

Practise this, entering into the inner feeling of it; and it will help you to make your intonation of the word ‘warm’ accord with the precise shade of experience that you want it to express. Exercises of this kind should be included in your training.

Take another: I am cold. Es perlet (I feel a tingling, a stinging sensation—and this time, especially in my legs and arms).

cold: a tingling or stinging sensation.

The more of such examples that you can find for yourselves, the better. See where you can take some word that expresses a perception or sensation, and lead it over into an experience that is more intimate, that touches you more nearly. To carry over in this way a perception that is at first more remote and separate into the realm of the intimate will give to your speaking the right inner ‘feeling’ tone.

So we have now four properties of speech:

The feeling tone of speech,
The beautiful, smooth flow of speech,
The revelation of oneself that is given out in speech,
The penetrating and convincing power of speech.

These are, every one of them, a matter of technique. The actor has simply to learn the technique for achieving them.

In past ages, such things were known instinctively, and men were also aware of their fine spiritual significance. In the school of Pythagoras, for example, the pupils had to recite strongly marked rhythms, the aim being to intervene by this means in human evolution, taking hold of what was instinctive and developing it further by education.

Take a line of verse that runs in trochees or dactyls, such as:

Singe, unsterbliche Seele, der sündigen Menschen Erlösung!4Sing, O immortal soul, the redemption of sinful mankind!

A rhythm of this nature, chanted in a kind of singing recitative, Pythagoras would use in his school to tame the passions of men. He knew its power. And he knew also that verse in the iambic rhythm has the.effect of stirring up the emotions. Such things were well known to the men of earlier times, just as they knew too that the art of music takes us back to the Gods of the past, the plastic and pictorial arts lead us an to the Gods of the future, while the art of drama, standing between the two, conjures up the Spirits of the time in which we live.

We too must learn to perceive truths of this nature. A knowledge of them must return again among mankind; only then will art be able to take its right place in life.

It is really also quite remarkable how strongly the instinctive can still make itself feit in this domain. Look at the popular poetry composed by the Austrian poet Misson, the Piarist monk who wrote in dialect. If you study Misson's biography and read of all the other things that he did, you will find that he obviously wanted this poetry to have a soothing, calming effect. He accordingly chose for it, not the iambic metre but, notwithstanding that he was writing in dialect, the hexameter.

Naaz, iazn loos, töös, was a ta sa, töös sàckt ta tai Vada.
Gottsnam, wails scho soo iis! und probiast tai Glück ö da Waiden.
Muis a da sàgn, töös, was a da sa, töös las der aa gsackt sai.
Ih unt tai Muida san alt und tahoam, wöast as ee, schaut nix aussa.
Was ma sih schint und rackert und plàckt und àbi ta scheert töös
Tuit ma für d'Kiner, was tuit ma nöd ails, bald s'nöd aus der Art schlàgn’!—
Es mar aamàl a presshafts Leut und san schwari Zaiden,
Graifan s' am aa, ma fint töös pai artlinga rachtschàffan Kinern ...

You can feel, as you listen to the lines, their soothing, quieting influence.

If you want to lead straight over to the spiritual, if you want to take your hearers away from the physical and lead them up to where they can move in the realm of the spirit, then you will have to use the iambic metre, but still forming the speaking gently, quietly.

And this is one of the reasons that prompted Goethe, for example, to write his dramas in iambics, one of the reasons also why our Mystery Plays have been written largely in iambic verse. A sensitive perception for such things will have to live within us, if we want to have again true schools of dramatic art. In such schools it must be known that speech is alive, that gesture is alive, that everything that happens on the stage is alive and active and sends its influence out far and wide.

table 1

or, using English letter:

table 2