Speaking clearly about enunciation

I received a phone call, and when I answered it, a sentence was spoken. I could not make out what was being said, and I told the speaker so. The sentence was repeated, a second time, which again I could not make out, and I told her so again. Then there was a third try, and finally, on the fourth rendition, I was able to make out two words—“Joe Biden.” Since I am a Nevadan and the state has the third or fourth presidential nominating event next year, I figured out what this was. But I was not willing to sit and hear the entire spiel, given the experience so far. So I declined the rest of the call and hung up.

Setting aside the absurdity of telephone candidate sales pitches seven months before the Nevada caucuses, candidates who want to use them should make certain that their sales pitch can be understood.

For as long as I can remember, one of the things that has most exasperated me about the education system is its indifference to the way students talk.

No, I’m not talking about profanity or racial slurs.  I’m talking about enunciation, sometimes (and not altogether accurately) called diction. Things have gotten so bad that half the people in our society sound like the announcements at the Greyhound bus depot.

All over the country, there are diction classes to correct the way adults talk, which forces the question of why we aren’t teaching them correctly in the first place when they are in grade school.

I have heard public address systems used in casinos, businesses, and innumerable other places to amplify mumbled and unintelligible verbiage. What’s inexcusable is that I have heard the same thing happen on school public address systems.

In 1988 I was covering a disabled veterans convention in Reno at which the speakers’ words were captioned on a screen at the front of the hall for the benefit of vets whose hearing was not what it once war. A voice recognition device rendered the speakers’ (who included George Bush the Elder and Al Gore) verbal words into written words for projection on the screen. The machine could not make out an appalling proportion of the words it took in and so spit out gibberish on the screen.

William F. Buckley Jr. once spent a day with a new acquaintance and looked forward to hearing what he had to say, but could not understand what his friend was saying. He later described an experience everyone seems to have gone through: “But after an hour or so I gave up. … My responses became feigned, and I was reduced to harmonizing the expression on my face with the inflection of his rhetoric. It had become not a dialogue, but a soliloquy and the conversation dribbled off.”

Buckley noted that renowned English scholar William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style, said it was even more important to speak clearly if the speaker did not know what he was talking about: “Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?”

Going to movies is nowhere near the pleasure it was when I was half my age because much of what I hear I cannot understand. A director named Kevin Reese has written an essay on “Why Actors Don’t Get Cast.” He listed 41 reasons. Four of them: “Your articulation was sloppy.” “You have a speech problem.” “I couldn’t hear your voice.” “Your reading skills aren’t very good.”

Each reason was followed by a paragraph of elaboration. This was one of them: “The number one job of an actor is to communicate the life of the character to the audience. How can you communicate if you mumble or have bad speech habits? I don’t have time in the rehearsal process to teach you how to use proper diction—you should have learned that long ago.  If you need speech or diction classes—get them.”  Too many performers are disciples of the Clint Eastwood squint-and-grunt school of acting.

Theatre is as bad as cinema. Critic Christina D’Angelo observed of the Broadway production of Rent that “Take Me As I Am” was “one of the very few songs that were intelligible. … The majority of the cast are in dire need of some serious diction classes, and a few could use a voice coach. I would say that over seventy-five percent of the lyrics were completely unintelligible. It seems they’ve confused screaming with singing.” Keep in mind that actors are among the people in our society with the best enunciation.

My own profession is just as bad. Media consultants (people who advise broadcasters how to get higher ratings) always advise television reporters to write stories in conversational style. Unfortunately, to most reporters, this means using contractions, which is the last thing they should do. Most of them don’t have the diction to make contractions work on the air. Television tends to exaggerate everything it broadcasts, and there’s nothing more confidence-inspiring than hearing a supposedly knowledgeable reporter saying “dint” for “didn’t,” “woont” for “wouldn’t.” A variant on this part of the problem is actress Olivia Munn playing a broadcast journalist in Newsroom and fumbling her pronunciation of couldn’t” and “wouldn’t”.

As I wrote this, I heard a television commercial advertising a CD by Pol Pot. I had to look up at the screen because the notion of the one-time leader of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge government as a singer was a grabber. It turns out that the singer is Paul Potts and the announcer’s enunciation was lousy.

There are plenty of superfluous non-academic requirements like physical education in the schools that can make way for a more essential need—learning to talk.

And if you are a candidate for office, screen those phone solicitors—if you have to use them.

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