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Voice and Diction

#80 - 11/30/-0001

"The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears. There even are places where English completely disappears. In America they haven't used it for years."

- Alan Jay Lerner, Lyricist
My Fair Lady

In the story of "Pygmalion," the play by G.B. Shaw which became "My Fair Lady" in the talented hands of Lerner and Lowe. Eliza Doolittle, drab street person and seller of flowers, is passed off as royalty at a state ball after being trained to speak properly by one Professor Higgins, misogynist and bachelor. It is great entertainment and it makes the clearest case in literature for the importance of voice and diction training.

The surest, simplest way to re-invent yourself is with vocal training. Most of us have little or no formal education in proper diction. The voice is taken for granted by almost everyone except singers, radio personalities and sometimes, (too seldom these days) actors. For the rest of the population the idea of working on the speaking mechanism never occurs. Only if we hear ourselves recorded do we realize the disparity between our vocal self-image and the sometimes harsh, unpleasant truth.

Almost no one speaks with their 'natural' voice. A newborn child's voice is a force of nature. An infant can produce a cry at the fullest possible volume and keep it up for hours without becoming hoarse. An adult will often experience discomfort and vocal fatigue by the half-time of an exciting sports event. The infant is screaming for higher stakes than the sports fan. For the baby, it's a matter of life and death that it be heard by its mother, so its voice comes out clear, pure and unimpeded. As children, we continue to use our voices well and naturally until we run into the muffling inhibitors set up by parents, teachers and other grown-ups who take exception to our boundless vocal energy – or, noise. That's when all of our natural, childlike urges to sing and shout became stifled.

When you think about it, the human voice is a completely acquired thing. All the tools of speech have other, more important tasks. The lungs, the engine of the voice, are meant primarily to provide oxygen to our blood; the larynx, or 'voice-box' as we call it, is actually a valve to prevent food from falling into the trachea; the mouth has several other functions that could take precedence over speech – such as tasting, chewing, drinking, inhaling and kissing. The development of speech and language was an evolutionary miracle spanning two or three million years. The modern infant will re-trace the entire process in less than two years.

I loved listening to my daughter, Elizabeth, during that period. Her first year was filled with every sound the human vocal mechanism is capable of making – the French 'R', the German 'CH', even the click sounds of central Africa. At about the age of three, she was speaking quite fluently with one or two small, charming, idiosyncracies. At least I found them charming. It's a parent thing. Those of you who gag at cuteness should skip the next paragraph.

Elizabeth had difficulty distinguishing certain consonants: hard G's became D's, and hard C's became T's. So "Good cookie" became "Dood Tookie." She could hear the difference, but her articulation let her down. When we would imitate her she would protest "No, not dood. Dood!" Eventually, of course, she outgrew this baby talk, and now it takes her some effort to be that cute.

Many of us grew to adulthood with a misshapen standard of pronunciation, established by the dialect of our environment. Folks where I come from, southeast Missouri, tend to add an unnecessary vowel sound now and then, but they make up for it by subtracting just about as many vowels and lots of final consonants, too. For instance, they might pronounce "every girl is going" as "ever' gir-ul is goin'." While my wife, who comes from central New Jersey, might compress the city of Newark into a single syllable: "Nerk."

Most people blithely glide through life, unconcerned about such trivial matters as regional accent and proper pronunciation. After all, people understand what they say. It's not like they're speaking pig-latin all the time. And yet. We do judge each other by our accents, don't we? I recently attended a training of managers in the northeastern U.S. They watched a video of Zig Ziglar, one of Americas foremost business speakers, who comes from Yazoo City, Mississippi. When asked their evaluation of what Ziglar had to say, almost everyone in the room responded that they had difficulty taking him seriously because "he talked like such a hick." Clearly, Ziglar's down home, grits 'n gravy style did not charm these city people. By the same token, the films of Woody Allen do not find a wide appreciation in rural America. I happened to see "The Purple Rose of Cairo" some years ago in a 500 seat theatre in Minnesota. Besides myself, there were three others in the audience.

So what's the ideal? Well, if you want to appeal to the widest possible audience, you would do well to listen carefully to the news anchors on network tv. These ladies and gentlemen have worked on their diction, knowing that they are speaking to the broadest possible range of people in this country and abroad. Any regionalism in their delivery must be subtle – there's more than a touch of Texas drawl in Dan Rather's commentary, and if you listen for it, you can still hear a charming hint of Louisville, Kentucky when Dianne Sawyer speaks – but few people in any region of this country find these two professionals lacking in credibility. Well, Rather's had some rough innings lately, but not because of his accent.

In most things, we are pretty much stuck with the cards that God and our gene pool have dealt to us. You can change your looks to some extent with make-up, clothes, fitness regimens, etc Or you can go for painful and expensive surgery that can even alter your gender. But nothing matches the transformation you can make with relative ease, by simply learning to speak clearly, gracefully and naturally. Just ask Eliza Doolittle.

© 2006 Michael F. Landrum


Something to Ponder

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and
out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.

- Sigfried Sassoon Everyone Sang