No doubt you will have seen, at some time or other, the film My Fair Lady. In the current Winter Collector’s edition of The Lady there is an article which highlights speech in which the writer of the article, Liz Hodgkinson, says, “One may remember George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, where professor of phonetics Henry Higgins argues that the only difference between flower seller Eliza Doolittle and a great lady was the voice. And in many ways he was right. Eliza successfully enters high society without changing anything but her accent.”
So, I ask the rhetorical question, does it matter how we speak? Well, I think it does (and you have every right to disagree, of course; this is my own personal viewpoint.)
When I was a child my parents and I moved from the then industrial heartland of England, the North, to Devon. From Lancashire to be more precise. If you live in the UK you will have an idea what the Lancashire accent is like, but if you live overseas, and haven’t seen Coronation Street (set in Lancashire), it’s a very different accent from that in Devon, which has it’s own particular accent.
So thick was my Lancashire accent that my parents opted for me to have elocution lessons at school (this was an extra to the curriculum in those days.) Indeed, some time ago when I was in my hairdresser’s the young shampoo girl and I got on to the subject of speech (perhaps because I was complaining about the mumbled words of so many TV and film stars these days) and I mentioned to her that when I was young I’d had elocution lessons. She asked me what elocution lessons were? I can tell you now that I felt very old trying to explain they were to teach people to speak correctly: what was once called “received pronunciation” or “the Queen’s English”. I still think she was mystified! Since the days of the Beetles, regional accents have been not only acceptable, but elocution has been considered arcane, and certainly not to be taught in our egalitarian society. Glottal stops were fine, so if you said “‘oo’er'” instead of “hooter” and “ma’er” instead of “matter”, you were not corrected by parents or teachers. Also dropping the g and t off the ends of words, so that “thinking” became “thinkin'” well, that di’n’t ma’er a’ all!
But to return to my story. To rid me of my dropped aitches (and people who refer to the letter H as ‘haitch’ annoy me, but it would be very bad manners and totally insensitive to correct them; the word for the letter H is aitch, not haitch) and the double g in the middle of a word such as “singing”, pronouncing it as “sing-ging”, I had elocution lessons. Hence the title of this post, “Red Leather, Yellow Leather …” as that is a tongue-twister that we would sometimes recite, and at speed, resulting in laughter as you might well imagine. All I can remember of the lessons today is that they were fun; plus, learning poetry and standing up to recite such poems as The Brook, by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
It must’ve been noticeable to my friends that I spoke differently – although my closest friend also had elocution lessons with me. This was demonstrated to me many years ago, when a friend and I were in what was then the new, rather posh dept store, Hooper’s, and she wanted to sample some scents, she said to me, “You ask, you speak better than me!” She found the soignee sales’ women rather intimidating, her strong Devonshire accent caused her to lack confidence. Because a strong regional accent can have that effect, making the speaker sound not as well-educated as those with no such accent, even if they are highly intelligent and well-educated people.
What brings all this to mind is how badly (well, badly to me) many people now speak, especially on TV and radio, today. I find that the female weather forecasters are some of the worst spoken, and in this instance it’s not so much accent but their high-pitched voices which result in something akin to a nasalized whine. They speak down their noses, they haven’t been taught how to project their voices, or how to breath correctly, not through their mouths, but through their noses. They also run words together and gabble. I know they have much to tell us in a short space of time; a pity they can’t give fewer pieces of information and more slowly. The male weather forecasters don’t have high-pitched voices, they don’t make me grab the remote so I can hit the Mute button; women’s voices do tend to be higher-pitched than men’s, even the Prime Minister, the late Mrs Thatcher, had to have voice coaching to give what she said more gravitas.
“A clear, fluent speaking voice helps you to be more persuasive and makes the speaker seem more intelligent, nicer and more approachable, whereas glottal stops and missing off aspirates can made people seem stupid and uneducated, although many celebrities such as violinist Nigel Kennedy, entertainer Ricky Gervais and broadcaster Paul Merton speak in such accents,” says Liz Hodgkinson. “But,” she says, “as celebrities they can maybe get away with it. It is part of their shtick. The rest of us can’t, if we want to get on in life. A well-modulated speaking voice that is easy and pleasant to listen to opens doors.”
I know there will be many of you who will disagree, you will love the wide variety of accents in this country, but I know that I am glad my parents paid extra for me to learn to speak correctly, so that I don’t say, “corr’ec’ly”. Indeed, according to Liz Hodgkinson’s article, elocution lessons are once again on the rise, people at last realizing that an attractive voice makes people sound more poised, confident and articulate.
And with that may I wish you a Happy New Year (not An ‘Appy Noo Year!)
Until next time.