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On Voice, Language And Accent

" THY speech bewrayeth thee," said the Jewish damsel to Simon Peter. How often do we see people who have with painful effort acquired all the social graces and even a certain elegance of manner, but who still betray — by the misuse of a single letter it may be — the defects of their early education! It is in vain for the woman who says " kep " instead of " kept " to have armorial bearings emblazoned all over her plate, and a whole gallery filled with the portraits of her ancestors. That one little letter t, with which all her wealth cannot supply her, settles her former social status in spite of her many protestations.

The wisdom of all ages has recognized this traitor-quality of voice and language. sop sets it forth in his fable of the Ass in the Lion's skin; and the old fairy story tells us how the good girl was known by the roses and pearls that fell from her lips, while vipers and toads betrayed the vixenish heart of her unkind sister. The modern saying has it that a fool may pass for a wise man if he only knows enough to keep his mouth shut.

People are not on their guard as to their manner of speech; their own ears are so accustomed to it that it makes little impression on them. If phonographs were as common as looking-glasses, we might be as watchful of how we talk as we now are of how we look. A keen observer can judge of a man's age, character, manners and morals, by the sound of his voice alone.

The proper cultivation of the voice is of very great importance, especially for Americans. " Whether it is the climate or the 'abits," we undoubtedly have a tendency to speak in harsh nasal tones as the candid foreigner takes sincere pleasure in informing us. Proper cultivation and use of the voice not only increase its beauty, but prevent its becoming thin and cracked with age, and add greatly to a person's health and strength. You will hear women of forty speak, whose voices are thin and worn because they have never used them properly; while other women of threescore and ten or even more years speak with round, full, strong tones that are delightful and refreshing to hear.

Public speaking, singing, acting, are all healthful pursuits in spite of the late hours they involve. Even reading aloud is said to be an excellent preservative of the voice. Probably nothing is worse for it than scolding a high key, or than the deplorable habit, so prevalent in some houses, of calling up and downstairs.

Children should be trained not to pitch their voices too high; indeed, every one should speak in chest tones, and not from the head and throat. A successful school-teacher said to the writer, " If children are inclined to be unruly and troublesome, don't raise your voice and scream at them, but drop it, speak lower and not higher." If you speak loud and high, it shows that you yourself are excited; but if you speak in a low, firm tone, you show that you command yourself and mean to command others. In " Daniel Deronda," Gwendoden's hateful husband speaks in a low voice of repressed power whenever he means to be especially disagreeable, and the high-strung, spirited woman feels obliged to submit to his tyrannical mandates, soft-spoken though they be.

A clever man who was very attentive to a beautiful but not very intellectual woman, was once asked what great charm he found in Miss , and whether her conversation was not very dull. " Oh, no! " he replied; " she doesn't say anything that is very startling, but I like so much to hear her talk. When she tells me that she had bread and butter for luncheon, she pronounces ` bread' and ` butter' in such a charming way that it is truly delightful! "

There are certain words which seem predestined to martyrdom, so persistently are they mispronounced and abused. Take for instance the word " gentleman;" certainly it does not seem very difficult to pronounce in the right way, that is, just as it is spelled. But many people make a curious mumble in the middle of it, so that it sounds much like " gempman " or " gehempman " or " geneeman." The man who aspires to be a gentleman should be very careful to pronounce his own title distinctly. The abbreviation "gents " is never used by people of education. Another very common but less damning error is to omit the n sound in government, and to pronounce it " goverment." Even well-educated people make this mistake through carelessness.

A distinct utterance and the careful enunciation of every letter when pronouncing a word are of the greatest importance. One should not be slovenly in speech any more than in dress, handwriting or any other detail of the conduct of life. It is not necessary to speak loud in order to speak clearly. A soft, low and gentle voice we hold to be an excellent thing in woman, as much as Shakespeare did. But beware of a woman with a voice that is ever soft! Often she is very sweet-tempered, but you will find her to be of no soft will, and as hard to move as adamant, from any determination she has once formed.

Some women who speak with soft and pleasant voices mar what would otherwise be the perfect whole of their speech, by a peculiar indistinctness of utterance, which conveys to the by-stander the impression that their mouths are full of pudding. This is a more agreeable extreme than the sharp; hard, nasal tones of many Yankees; but it savors of affectation, and makes conversation difficult and one-sided. Such an enunciation pretty, but hard to understand is like the much-abused English hand-writing at one time so popular. A letter written in the extremity of this style is very pretty and interesting, unless you happen to wish to read it!

The general tendency of Americans is toward distinct, although it may be unmusical utterance. We do not slur and abbreviate names as much as the English do, and our tendency to pronounce all there is of a proper name is sometimes carried too far. When a brakeman screams out" Green—wich," "Nor—wich," or "Brunswick, the polite ears of the passengers are deeply offended. " Grinnidge, Norridge, Bruns'ick," have become the standard and recognized mispronunciations originated by our British brethren, who seem to have a special dislike to the letter w as well as to the letter h. Berwick, they pronounce Berrick; St. John (used as a proper name), Sinjun; Gower, Gore; Salisbury, Salzbury; Cockburn, Coburn; Cowper, Couper, the w taking the sound of u; Brougham, Broum; Pontefract, Pomfret; Geoghegan, Gaygan; Belvoir, Bever; Beau-champ, Beacham, etc.

Other instances of names whose spelling and pronunciation are at deadly feud with each other are too well known, perhaps, to need mention, " Cholmondeley " and " Marjoribanks," which look so stately in print, but whose owners must be addressed as plain " Chumley " and " Marchbanks; " " Cavendish," which is pronounced " Candish," etc. Less known than these, and more singular than any, is the name of a certain family in Virginia who spell their name " Enroughty and pronounce it " Darby."

While Americans are justly proud of the comparative freedom from dialects which distinguishes our great country, they still love to poke a little fun at one another on account of slight The New Englander smiles at the " spoon," " av'noo," " chick'n," etc. of " N'Yawk," and thinks it is utterly foolish to flatten the a in bath, last, dance, etc.

The New Yorker responds by pointing out the evident absurdity of calling coat " coat " (wherein he is right) and the great advantage of saying " dawg " as he does, rather than " dog," as we do (wherein he is wrong). And the inhabitants of both sections of country agree in wondering at the folly of Westerners, with their wonderfully rolled r's, and of Southerners, with their " paws " and " maws " and various negroidal peculiarities of dialect.

Now that the English accent has become so fashion-able, the New Yorker is endeavoring rapidly to broaden his a's, while the Bostonian strives to shake off the nasal quality of his tone, and to speak less harshly. Thus are two hostile factions peacefully united in their loving imitations of a third party!

" English as she is spoke" by well-bred Englishmen themselves is certainly a very charming. tongue, and much more poetical than our American version; but the imitations of English speech that are becoming so current here have the pinchbeck quality of all counterfeits. In the first place, they seem affected; and affectation is a form of insincerity which may be very innocent, but is almost universally disliked. In the second place, imitation is a sign of weakness in nations and in individuals.

Emerson says that nations are great and vigorous while they are occupied with their own affairs. The following passage from one of his essays might be read with advantage by the gilded youth of to-day. " The young men in America at this moment take little thought of what men in England are thinking or doing. That is the point which decides the welfare of a people; which way does it look ? If to any other people, it is not well with them. If occupied in its own affairs and thoughts and men, with a heat which excludes almost the notice of any other people, - as the Jews, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Arabians, the French, the English, at their best times have done, - they are sublime; and we know that in this abstraction they are executing excellent work."

Herodotus says: " The Persians are of all nations most ready to adopt foreign customs; for they wear the Medic costume, thinking it handsomer than their own; and in war they use the Egyptian cuirass. And they practise all kinds of indulgences with which they become acquainted." How little these imitative and rather foppish Persians were able to withstand the Greeks, every schoolboy knows.

All of which is respectfully submitted for the consideration of the grand army of returned Anglo-Americans who have with so much difficulty learned the trick of a new speech, and very imperfectly, after all their trouble. It is not possible for us, with our nervous organization and quickness of thought and action, to speak with the graceful slowness (sometimes called drawl) which distinguishes the elder, slower, more mature branch of our race. A kitten might as well attempt to imitate the gait of an old and very respect-able tortoise. We may well admire, however, the refined intonation and pronunciation of the English. Would it not be well for us to retain our own forms of speech, yet endeavor to speak the language common to both peoples, in a painstaking rather than in a careless, slovenly way?

Englishmen have a way of dwelling lovingly upon their words, which is very pretty to hear. Even ugly words become attractive from the caress of their speech. I once heard an Englishman of some literary note pronounce " vulture " in such soft lingering accents, with so long a dwelling upon the first syllable, and such a soft liquid sound of the 1, that the odious bird of prey seemed for the moment transfigured into an amiable and poetic animal. Even the curt monosyllables" yes" and no " the Briton contrives to make of a respectable length by judiciously hissing the s and adding a w sound to the no. We have retained something of this manner of speech in our Yankee drawl

That dreadful vulgarism perpetrated by some Americans of saying " yeah " for yes, cannot be too severely condemned. Not only is the mispronunciation hateful, but it creates confusion by making " yes " sound too much like "no. The negative and affirmative in our modern languages are of very different sound - in order to avoid any possible mistake. We could not now tolerate " yea " and " nay," because they sound too much alike.

Another unpleasant abbreviation is that of "gen'ally" for generally. Some people find it very difficult to pronounce th before s, and say " clo'es" and " mon's " instead of " clothes " and " months." Others drop the h after w, saying, " w'ite " and " w'en " for " white " and " when." This suppression of the letter h is also characteristic of the speech of a certain class of Englishmen, as all the world knows. Why Americans do not also add the h in the wrong place, like their cockney brethren, is a puzzle to the learned, and students of language have brought forth various theories to account for this curious fact.

The elision of the g final in such words as "going, saying, doing,'' etc., is not often heard now in the speech of educated people; but twenty or more years ago there were still a number of elderly persons who never thought of saying aught ,but " goin', doin', sayin'," etc. The shortening of the o in " stone " is an ugly but common mistake; still worse is the childish error of adding r to words ending in a vowel sound, as idear, sawr," etc.

When it comes to the pronunciation of foreign words, one is treading on dangerous ground; it is better not to quote from other languages unless one is familiar with them, and knows them by sound as well as by sight. Even then, quotations should be sparingly used, as it is in very bad taste to interlard one's discourse constantly with French or German words; neither is it now the fashion to do so.

To quote Latin, and get the quantities, genders and cases wrong, seems a needless barbarity toward a poor language that is already dead. And with anglicized Greek and Latin words it is a poor plan to venture on a plural unless you have sufficient grounds for supposing it to be the right one. Thus people who wish to be especially correct will carefully say " memorandas," every time, in a way calculated to make Harkness, Allen, Greenough and the rest writhe with torture and surprise. Memorandum is now an English word; and though educated people generally use the Latin plural, memoranda, it is quite allowable simply to make the plural like that of any other English word. A woman who wished to be extremely exact in her conversation said lately to a friend, " You can telegram if you wish to!"

It is a safe rule not to follow every new wind of doctrine in pronunciation, as in other matters. Often it is raised by some one who has a very imperfect knowledge of the subject, and by following his lead a person often appears ridiculous, and reveals, perhaps, the defects of early education as well as an over-ambition to speak in the newest manner and the politest fashion." Whereas if one pronounces a word in the ordinary or old-fashioned manner, attention is not especially drawn to it.

Thus it is rather amusing to hear a country dress-maker speak of a " polonay " in a mildly corrective tone, which rebukes the ignorance of her customer for calling the garment a " polonaise."

While nothing is quite so bad as coarseness and rudeness of speech and language, there is still a sort of affectation, of over-delicacy, and would-be precision, that is almost as bad. You will find these neither in the works of the best writers nor in the mouths of the most refined and cultivated men and women. They are the characteristics of people who either have not had a liberal education or who have not enjoyed the best social advantages.

The perpetual use of the word " limb " for " leg," and " retire for " go to bed," are familiar instances of this over-delicacy. " He fell and sustained a fracture of the limb" is an absurd and needlessly vague way of intimating that a man broke his leg; and while it is perfectly proper and correct to use the form " retire " occasionally, yet the constant eschewing of the plain old English phrase seems both affected and prudish.

The over-precision of which I have spoken can perhaps best be defined by calling it grammar-school precision; since it is of a kind found often among grammar-school teachers and graduates, and suggestive of this degree of education rather than of a higher. A seamstress of peculiar " refinement," of whom a lady had ordered a set of nightgowns, sent in her bill for the making of so many " bed-dresses." The expressions " lady friend " and " gentleman friend " have been so persistently held up to deserved scorn by the " New York World," that we may hope their fate is sealed. The use of the word " female " for woman has gone out of fashion, as it deserved to do. It is in-elegant, and very derogatory to one half of man-kind,

" Newspaper English " often amazes us with its persistent affectations, and with its constant and absurd use of certain pet phrases which are evidently deemed by the writer to be extremely elegant. Thus, according to some newspapers, no events of moment ever take place or happen; they always " transpire." Neither does any citizen live or dwell anywhere; he always " resides." It goes without saying that these remarks do not apply to the editorial pages of first-class papers. A Iittle learning is a dangerous thing, here as elsewhere. As a remedy for over-formality, I would suggest copious doses of our best writers and strict attention to the language of our best speakers.

A lady was reading a manuscript production aloud to a friend, when the latter exclaimed in horror, " You must alter that — and that! " " If you had seen the manuscript, you would have known that both those expressions were quoted," was the reply. " One was from Carlyle and one from Emerson."

Where people of imperfect early education have supplemented it later in life by a course of reading, the effect on their pronunciation is sometimes very curious. They know the words by sight but' not by sound, and will call them " out of their names " in a very funny way. Children who have not been well trained in reading aloud fall into the same errors. Hence it is very important for pronunciation, as well as for the voice, to drill young people thoroughly and long in reading and speaking. A bright boy of thirteen, who was very fond of books and could, spell more than ordinarily well, ceased to attend the reading-class at his school because his parents thought it needless for him to do so any longer. But when they heard that boy say " hummid " for " humid," "delicacy " for " del'-icacy," they sent him back to his class in very short order. A course of Webster's Unabridged will undoubtedly cure these defects, if the patient has the courage to take it.

Only the State and its rulers have the right to coin money; and only the kings of language have the right to coin new words. They, the great writers and thinkers, may do it, for they do it intelligently, and will not abuse their privilege by debasing the coinage or overcrowding it; but that every newspaper writer should be allowed to make new words and scatter them broadcast over the country is simply barbarous.

Allusion is not here made to slang (which is the necessary concomitant of a living language however little we may like it), but to such dreadful evolutions of speech as "donate," " orate," " walkist," " residential," " disconcertion," etc. Occasionally these new words, though barbarous, have the merit of filling a gap in the language; but oftener they are invented for the sake of greater (?) elegance, or for their novelty. But when you have the good Saxon words " give and " speak," why change them for such weak words of Latin derivation as " donate " and "orate " ?

It is a well-known rule, with few exceptions, that in every-day speech one should choose words of Saxon rather than of Latin origin; but the grammar-school or affected style always takes the Latin word. The person who uses it may perhaps be quite innocent of knowing its derivation; he likes it because it is long, and has a learned sound.

It is well known that the greatest writers use the largest number of different words, just as the uneducated man uses the fewest. Sophocles, the Greek professor at Harvard, once gave the writer a very interesting account of the different number of words used by persons of different grades of education; of all which I can only recall the fact that the smallest vocabulary was limited to a few hundred words, and that of a college graduate to a few thousand.

Shakspeare used more words than any other writer in the English language, — about fifteen thousand. Milton comes next, but with a much smaller vocabulary.

One of the exceptions to the rule of using the Saxon word in preference to the Latin is found in the word " folks." It is now considered inelegant to use this word as applied to a family or a number of people; indeed, those who are careful in their speech do not use it save in the singular number and in an historical connection, as in folk-lore."

"How are all your folks? " certainly has a very barbarous sound to ears polite. And yet it is hardly safe, in greeting a friend whom one has not seen for some time, to ask for each member of his family separately, some one may have died or gone crazy in the interim. But one can always say " How are all your family? " because it is a safe, noncommittal sort of inquiry, and still it covers the ground.

In the words " waistcoat " and " trousers " we find the world polite eschewing once more the French and Latin equivalent expressions. " Pants " and " vest " are not used by people who are careful in their speech, though they sanction the rather outlandish word " knickerbockers."

While it seems unnecessary to speak of slang as if those who used it were monsters of iniquity, and guilty of the seven deadly sins, still its habitual use is much to be deprecated both as inelegant and unmeaning. People use a slang expression to save themselves the trouble of defining precisely what they mean; hence they become inexact and slovenly in thought and speech. " Awfully jolly," for instance, when applied to everything, from a new style of hat to a surly far-from-jolly-looking bull-terrier, ceases to have any meaning at all, beyond the vague general commendation that it implies. Another great objection to slang is, that it often has a secondary meaning, and people innocently use expressions of this sort which they have picked up, without being at all aware of the double-entendre implied in what they say.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage


Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs

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