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The Decline of Speech. A Modest Proposal

Traditionally, speaking well was regarded as proof of a good education. It was also important in the theater and in the liturgy, as the inclusion of rhetoric in the medieval trivium shows. To reach a theater audience or a congregation, clear speech was essential. Bühnensprache, stage language, unified spoken German.

It also had a political purpose, since a unified speech helped unify a nation. In English, "King's English" became the standard, and in France and Spain "Royal Academy" implied "of language". As early as 1492 Nebrija said of Spanish that "language is an instrument of empire." In the Spanish Empire the Church played an important role in spreading Spanish, and American Spanish is said to have fewer cuss words than the peninsular version because it had been filtered by the Church. In what some took to be an excessive display of piety, I had the habit of sitting right under the pulpit to be able to study the movements of the mouth of the preacher. Why is Spanish so admirably clear? Going back to pre-Christian times, Spanish developed from Latin under the influence of the Basque-speaking natives of La Bureba, northeast of Burgos: Romans said Basque sounded like the blowing of trumpets.

The fact that the court and the upper classes spoke the standard language inevitably led to snobbery and the popular resentment of it. The worst case was England, where certain forms of speech were U or non U, U standing for upper class. "I'm pleased to meet you" was non-U. U required that you say "How do you do", even though the non-U greeting makes much more sense. The expression "King's English" was displaced by "Oxford English," or "BBC English," since the BBC spread the standard throughout Britain.

Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was a treatise on Standard English and its class implications. The Conservative Party spoke U English, the Labour Party non-U. "We, the People" took over speech, and in the United States, the oligarchy which ran the Revolution spoke much better English than the Jacksonian government. Jackson killed good speech, as well as a lot of Seminoles. In England the Labourites encouraged the BBC to use the local accent of the various parts of the kingdom, with the consequent loss of comprehensibility. I have difficulty understanding some northern accents. The folksy people got academic backing from the linguists of "leave your language alone" school. Like cultural anthropologists, they adore local peculiarities. The once aloof monarchy and the Conservative Party now wish to appear folksy.

The debased use of TV has dealt a fatal blow to good English, indeed to good language almost everywhere. I find TV German, and even sometimes TV English, difficult to understand. TV Italian has lost the sweetness which led Charles V to say that he spoke Italian to women. Except in Spain, where they are well-trained, anchorpersons are often young women who have tin ears. Much of "newscasts" consists of advertisements shouted by barkers who use a form of speech which they think sells products, but which sickens me. In the latest issue of Nature, Jonathan Harrington and two other Australian researchers report on their a study of the speech of Queen Elizabeth II and concluded that she speaks lower class English. Australians, whose speech was the subject of ridicule in the past, are getting their revenge. John Wells, a phonetics professor at University College, London, said the Queen watches TV.

In Germany and France there are protest movements against linguistic orthodoxy, which are justified in so far as they criticize archaic, complicated grammar rules. Clear speech is another matter. In Spain, the problem has been regionalism, with each region claiming to have its onw language. Valencians speak Catalan, but insist on calling it Valencian. What passes for gallego is usually a mishmash of Spanish and Portuguese.

In Spanish America the situation is mixed. Amazingly, some semi-literate Indians speak a beautiful Spanish. The eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano led TV crews to take us though villages at its base which outsiders do not visit. It was amazing to hear the Indian women speaking Spanish well, better than the people of big cities, where there is almost a cult of speaking badly.

The saddest example is Colombia. Bogotá used to boast that it was the Athens of America, and when I first went there the upper class spoke what might be called salon Spanish. Now Colombian TV hires young women with little training who rattle off news in a mechanical way. Commercials take up much, too much, of the program.

At this Christmas time, what has happened to the the Three Wise Men and the holy family they came to visit? God knows. On Colombian TV this morning there was a long news item on a school for Santa Clauses, of whom a crowd appeared on the screen. They study (?) for four weeks, their main accomplishment being to say "Ho! Ho! Ho!" in a loud convincing way. They roared "Ho" for the camera. Christmas? Bah! Humbug! Colombian families are suffering and weeping. "Holy night, silent night"? What happened to you?

There are demands for a standard spoken English. I suggest that phoneticians study its variants using two criteria. Which is the clearest and the most euphonic? Would someone please take up this challenge?

Ronald Hilton - 12/23/00