For Eliza Doolittle Day: How Much Does Elocution Matter in the 21st Century?

Other NPR listeners may have heard this segmenttoday. An excerpt:

So how important is elocution in modern day life? Does it flavor your opinion of somebody’s intellect if they speak with a thick accent, be it ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘Hee-Haw’ or Ebonics or Hispanic? Do you think it’s racist/classist to not hire somebody for a phone rep job because they sound too “Shaniqua from the projects” or “Julio from the barrio” or “Ruby Luanne from the trailer park?”

Personally I’m more inclined to judge somebody who should speak proper English. I used to cringe whenever George Bush said “nukular”. What made me cringe even more was when people criticized the critics of “nukular” as “elitist” or “classist” (Bush was the son of a frigging multimillionaire senator who went to an Ivy League school, the man is not some sharecropper’s son who struggled his way to the top and never went to finishing school!).

I’m more forgiving when it’s somebody who did grow up on the bad side of town or the lower part of the socioeconomic spectrum, but even then I think they can help a lot of it, and whether it’s racist/classist/regionalist to have a prejudice about certain accents and grammer it exists nonetheless and they’re only doing themselves harm by having an arrogance about it. Talk any way you like when you’re at home or with your friends, but speak professionally when you’re speaking professionally- it’s not that hard.

My own voice is a bit odd. I had a speech impediment as a child- not so much a stutter or a stammer as a tendency to majorly trip over words. I found I wouldn’t do this if I would talk like “movie people”- such as, in fact, Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady or, more particularly, Doctor Doolittle (which came on TV all the time when I was a kid)- I listened to both soundtracks until the records wore out. I have an ability with accents and to this day if I start to stammer or trip over words I- completely unconsciously- slip into a slightly different speaking voice, and ultimately I really don’t have much of an accent of any kind. I’ve been placed as English, midwesterner, New Englander, and southerner all on the same day, and in school kids used to ask where I was from; I’d give them the hint “we grew up together and our mothers are cousins”; foreign exchange students thought it funny that “the others in class sound Dukes of Hazzard, you sound NBC nightly news”. (Me speaking.)

Most people aren’t as neurotic or odd in their speech as I am though. I’ve often wondered just how much of a cultural choice the way we speak is. In the south I’ve known very few black people who can’t perfectly mimic an uptight upper-class white person speaking and I’ve known very few whites who can’t perfectly mimic Black English vernacular.

So anyway, how important do you think good grammer and elocution is and how important do you think it should be? Do you think its discrimination to require somebody to speak clearly and “properly” on a job? Or, for that matter, share any other observations or questions about speaking.

PS- There’s talk of a MY FAIR LADY remake starring Keira Knightley and Daniel Day Lewis. God spread his mercy upon them- unless you can cast a 20 something Julie Andrews opposite a resurrected Rex Harrison don’t do it. (Maybe the fact that DDL’s musical NINE flopped at the box office [with good reason] will make them reappraise this.)

I would have no problem seeing an updating of Pygmalion, however. I think a movie set in the 21st century with a modern day Henry Higgins (one who makes his living helping politicians and actors speak properly perhaps, or has a bestselling line of elocution DVDs) who takes as a challenge an intelligent but poorly educated young woman with a horrible accent [plenty to choose from] could be great.
My version would focus on race and feature Whoopi Goldberg in the Alfred P. Doolittle role and instead of a bequest for lectures from an American millionaire she’d get a talk show deal, and of course there should be a screenwriter whose first “language” is whatever dialect is being used for authenticity sake.

I dunno for accents, but I’ll deliberately adjust and perhaps even ‘dumb down’ my pronunciation and word choices when trying to convey a certain personality or relate to a certain audience. It’s not so much that I’m trying to speak correctly or not, but rather that I’m trying to deliberately decieve; I’m far too well-read and the like and an informal speech pattern makes me more accessible. I consciously use contractions and the like (and phrases like ‘and the like’) to this end, as doing otherwise sounds stuffy.

Which I guess means I’m tryin’ to appeal to my electorate and make 'em think I’m a fun guy to go have a beer with, I guess.

So yeah, elocution definitely matters - it’s part of how you present yourself. However, ‘more correct’ elocution is not always the best tool for the task.

Loved the video! Great story and well told!

My parents were from New York, but didn’t have any of the stereotypical accents. We moved to Atlanta when I was six. Between my folks’ conscientious efforts to drill me in elocution and grammar, and my desire to fit in with the other kids, I felt bilingual as a child.

Mom and Dad were horrified if I tossed a “y’all” or “fixin’ to” into a conversation. Although they would sometimes encourage me to “speak southern” when their family or friends from up north came for a visit. (Like it was a parlor trick.)

One summer when I was in college I went downtown with my Mom and ran into a school friend on the street. My friend was from south Georgia and had a very strong accent. Apparently as we were chatting I had one, too. After we moved on, my Mom turned to me in amazement and said, “I couldn’t understand one word either of you said. It was as though you were speaking a foreign language.” :confused:

I’m delighted to hear that it’s Eliza Doolittle Day! “My Fair Lady” is one of my all time top five movies. Tomorrow I’m planning to arrive at the office and announce, “I washed my face and 'ands before I come, I did!” (That should confuse them.)

I apologize. I didn’t realize this was Great Debates, and I didn’t even answer the question. :smack:

If I were hiring reps for a call center, I don’t think an accent would be as important as whether the reps are intelligent and able to communicate with the people on the other end of the phone. In other words, I don’t think the customers care as much about what kind of accent the rep has as they care about getting a problem solved, a question answered, or whatever. If the reps can’t clearly express themselves, that’s going to be a problem.

On the other hand, I also think the old adage about real estate agents may apply. When you’re selling houses the standard advice is to present yourself (in dress, manner, speech, etc.) as the ideal neighbor. So you dress a little differently for the home buyer who wants an urban loft than you do for the couple who wants a house in the suburbs. Maybe you want reps who can tweak their accents when dealing with customers? (Actually I think a lot of people can and do this naturally.)

Where I see a lot of frustration is people who need to call tech support type centers that are off shore. The caller dials a number and expects the person on the other end to be intelligible in their language, which is often not the case. It leads to frustration for both parties. Corporations don’t seem to care about that; they’re driven more by the quarterly stock dividend than happy customers.

I used to sit within hearing distance of a salesman who, when speaking to someone whose name sounded Irish, really pushed the brogue. But sounded quite different when speaking to potential clients whose names didn’t sound Irish. And sometimes instead of sounding Irish he would sound really black (which he was, although with a genuine Irish name).

The other thing was that when you went into his office to talk to him after a minute, if you were paying attention, you’d see that he was mirroring your movements and mannerisms. I don’t know if he did this on purpose or not, but he was a hell of a salesman.

Accent and elocution are not, ISTM, the same thing. James Gandolfino and Marlon Brando were perfectly comprehensible when they spoke Joisey goomba, but lazy enunciation of any accent can make it incomprehensible or at least very hard work for hearers. Hugh Jackman has a distinctive Australian accent, but on TV talk shows when he speaks in his native accent he is perfectly comprehensible. The same cannot be said for bevans and westies who slur and elide their way through the language so that not even locals can understand.

Even aristocratic English people can so slur the speech and lose consonants in the back of the throat that it all comes out like vowel-heavy braying - like Bottomtooth in Family Guy.

And I am not sure that correcting frank errors is as easy as you think. There are lots of little errors in speech that are particularly hard to correct. I suspect many of them are developmental throwbacks - many children struggle with “ambliance” for “ambulance” and “hostible” for “hospital” because the particular ordering of consonants causes trouble, but they usually (but not always) grow out of it.

Some of these persist into adulthood. “Aks” instead of “ask” is one of them - I can think of two particularly intelligent people I know who make that mistake, and it is not born of ignorance. They just think “ask” and it comes out wrong. If they concentrate to avoid those minor errors, they sacrifice spontaneity and fluency. I suspect the same is true for people who say “nucular”. To them, saying the word correctly has the feeling of concentration necessary for saying a tonguetwister correctly. You can do it if you try, but the concentration required is not sustainable for a long period. Some word order trip ups are sufficiently common that I am reluctant to conclude they are the consequence of lack of intelligence.

This is not an apologia for Dubya, by the way. He is to be judged on his record. But he can’t not be aware of the error he makes. While there may well be reasons to question his intelligence, I am not sure this is fairly one of them.

Well, *My Fair Lady *was set in England, and in England, how one speaks is still very much an indicator of class.

Of course is does. Most of us make assumptions about people based on their speech patterns. When someone sounds like a hick or a gangsta thug they’re going to be treated differently than someone who speaks “properly.”

There’s a point where you can reach nitpickery and I think the ado made about George’s pronunciation of nuclear clearly qualified. It’s like people who get bent out of shape over someone pronouncing it Iraq with a strong “I” sound or a strong “E” sound at the beginning. I was far more concerned with Bush’s inability to give a decent overall speech than his pronunciation of nuclear.

Anthropologist call this code switching and almost all of us do this. We may have a separate and distinct manner of speech around our friends, family, and coworkers. When I give an academic presentation it’s different from a presentation I make while working as a docent.

That’s a very broad question. It’s probably not as important to a tattoo artist or a farmer as it is to a car salesman or a teacher. I don’t think it’s discriminatory to require someone to speak clearly and properly on the job. What’s clear and proper for one job might not be for another though.

If we’re talking about elocution: of course it does. The whole point is to demonstrate that if you are intelligent enough to speak a certain way, then you likely intelligent enough to talk about the same topics as someone else who speaks that way. The only problem with that are speech impediments, which do not indicate intelligence.

Accents are different though. Someone who has an unintelligible accent, we expect that they are not intelligent enough to realize they aren’t being understood and changing it accordingly. But within a narrow framwork, accents dont’s say much. Except when an accent appears to have an overabundance of lesser intelligent people using it, like the Valley girl accent in California, or the hick accent around here. Both groups have to code switch to be taken seriously elsewhere.

Grammar and elocution are important, but accent is not properly part of elocution. I know some definitions of “elocution” mention pronunciation, but there’s a difference between pronouncing words with an accent and mispronouncing them.

Everyone speaks with an accent relative to other accents, even if Sampiro can’t keep his own straight. :wink:

I don’t consider either dropped r’s or dropped g’s to be problematic.

Elocution is still VERY important.

I am a college-educated, upper middle class white guy from the suburbs. And I talk like one. I use proper grammar, and sometimes use long words, too.
But when I was working construction jobs to pay for college, I sure learned how important is was NOT to use proper grammar or long words.
I adjusted my language to match my co-workers… And I got hired, when my friend who spoke like a “college kid” got turned down , because the foreman just instinctively didn’t like him.
Appearances count. And appropriate elocution is a vital part of how you appear to other people.

example: our crew worked near a building with abstract paintings on the walls that were vaguely sexual. My friend said, :“hey-those paintings would make a good thesis on Freudian analyzation.”
I said “hey guys… look at those tits and dicks”
My friend had to go find a job using proper elocution…in a bookstore for minimum wage.
I kept on talkin’ jackshit with no elocution…and earned 5 times as much that summer.

Echoing chappachula, I have very careful elocution (think Niles Crane), and I’ve occasionally been typecast as professorial/British/gay.

Sampiro, your Rex Harrison education makes me now imagine you speaking like Stewie Griffin on Family Guy. :stuck_out_tongue:

Not much. Most states have moved away from elocution in favor of lethal injection.

Oh you suck. 5 minutes earlier and I would have gotten it first.

Lethal inflection.

That explains that execreble Fran Drescher program. Actually, it’s a not-bad explanation for Fran Drescher.

Given a choice between nails on a chalkboard and that woman’s voice, I’d go for the chalkboard without an instant’s hesitation.

Yes, it absolutely matters, because your speech is generally considered to reflect your background, and we judge people on their background without even thinking about it. I would say that speech matters more than appearance. Think of a person very sloppily dressed or raggedy and dirty, but speaking in what would generally be considered a well-educated style. Then think of someone in a designer suit who speaks in a style generally considered to be uneducated. I think you’ll generally find that the speech is what determines your assessment of the person.

What is not reflected in Pygmalion is that some regional accents are considered more acceptable than others, as demonstrated in the case of Roosevelt and Kennedy, and that the object is by no means always to project oneself as more posh, as demonstrated by Obama’s dropped g’s and Bush’s deliberate use of “nucular” when addressing the public, as opposed to “nuclear” when addressing more educated audiences. Also not mentioned is the fact that we usually cut a fair amount of judgmental slack for accents due to English not being a first language, much more, I think, than we do for domestic geographic variations. That is, we tend to accept that someone from, say, Russia will have an accent without assuming that s/he is ignorant, but we are far less forgiving of someone whose accent is obviously from, say, the deep south or the Bronx.

I’m not saying this is as it should be. But I am saying that this is the way it is, and I doubt it will ever change. People categorize (and, inevitably, rank) the people they encounter based on the data they have.