On Being Elocuted
In 2012 a private tutoring company in UK announced that the demand for elocution lessons had doubled and was greater than the demand for tuition in any other subject. There followed a flurry of newspaper articles, radio interviews and reflective journalism on the old issue of received pronunciation vs regional accents, The King’s Speech, the Queen’s English…
The Guardian Saturday 21 January 2012 featured an article by Andrew Martin in which he summed up a popular position:
Enunciating clearly? We have moved on from that, just as we don't wear ties, and no longer think that anyone who puts the milk in first is beyond the pale. It was no doubt some down-dressed Blairite backslapper who came up with a phrase for all this old-fashioned rectitude: "too school for cool".
This ‘popular’ blurring of the issues of accents and of clarity is unfortunate and many of the media responses were interesting defences of the value of both clarity and variety.
Lindsay Johns in The Daily Mail January 2012 (Speaking proper: Rising numbers of people are taking elocution lessons to improve their job prospects) lamented the fact that many of those lining up for elocution lessons were doing so to conquer an accent rather than to achieve clarity and expressiveness. He writes:
I fear we are in danger of confusing “proper English” and regional accents. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. Grammatical exactitude and not pronouncing words correctly are simply not the same as speaking in a regional accent.
Being constantly subjected to a diet of insipid vowels and lacklustre consonants would lead to a painful and disquieting aural monotony, be it on the radio, on television or in public, and would reduce us to bland and soulless automatons. It would leave us linguistically much poorer into the bargain. As long as (and the proviso is an important one) they are wholly clear and intelligible, I for one relish regional accents and see no reason not to celebrate them.
Andrew Martin (The Guardian) offers another observation on accents:
It has been suggested that another patrician fantasy, The King's Speech, has made people pay attention to articulation. But I find it hard to believe the demotic tendency has been reversed. According to Paul Kerswill, professor of socio-linguistics at York University, an exception to the trend towards homogenised accent-levelling is "multicultural London English … This is influenced by Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Nigerian and cockney accents, but whereas a cockney accent pronounces "right" as "royt", in MCLE, it's more like "raht".
I knew immediately what he meant: my teenage sons, both Guardian readers, try to talk like this. You might say – as Kerswill would – that they are subscribing to the dynamic accent of their generation, but, being hung up about class, I say they are practising inverted snobbery.
Bruce Moore reviewing Joy Damousi’s study of speech patterns in Australia writes of how elocution training in our country’s dark past was also seen as a ‘remedy’ for a class ‘problem’:
Manuals of elocution proliferated in the eighteenth century, and the tradition continued strongly through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They were popular in Australia in the nineteenth century, and although most were products of Britain, Australia also produced its own: Thomas Padmore Hill’s The Oratorical Trainer was first published in Melbourne in 1862, went through fourteen editions, and was one of the most popular books of its time.
While the elocution manuals might appear to focus primarily on innocent matters such as clarity of diction and appropriate modulation of the voice, they were in fact carriers of specifically British cultural and moral values. British English was the very embodiment of civilised values. Damousi demonstrates, for example, that in early colonial Australia it was assumed that, by teaching English to the indigenous people, they would become civilised and therefore English; where it was perceived (typically in court proceedings) that indigenous people could not understand English, this was taken as proof of their inability to be or become civilised – indeed, their inability to be English. In many subtle ways, of course, English carries its very English values and attitudes embedded in its vocabulary. In the elocution manuals, these values and attitudes are even more explicit, especially when, as Damousi shows, modes of speaking are used to classify class, race, and gender. The elocution manuals disseminated an exclusively English view of behaviour and manners throughout the Empire, and they were an integral part of the spread of Empire and English: ‘Language and speech helped to define, promote and empower an imagined “British” community.’
We might wonder if the associations between accent and class will ever be severed, and the answer is probably “Not bloody likely”. It seems to be as universal as both snobbery and inverted snobbery.
But without it we would be denied much of the raw material of literature, of the chance to have fun at the expense of snobbery, inverted snobbery, and cultural paralysis. And to awaken awareness of these things, which are there without the words that show them up. There’d be no Shaw’s Pygmalion, no Tom Leonard’s The 6 O’clock News no Frances Thompson’s Announcement.  The list would be long.
David Crystal (linguist, academic, author) in his response to the UK resurgence of this debate makes a really important observation, suggesting the value of teaching clarity of articulation regardless of issues of accent.
The point has to be made, loudly and clearly, that all these problems (of laziness etc) affect all accents - Received Pronunciation included. Even RP can be a handicap in some circumstances, being perceived as too posh, distant, or customer unfriendly. And it's perfectly possible for an RP speaker to lack confidence, speak too fast, or be phonetically unclear.
Stephen Fry in his autobiographical Moab is My Washpot describes his experience of being given elocution lessons for just such a problem.
During my first term at Stouts Hill I found it almost impossible to make myself understood. It drove me insane: I would say things perfectly plainly and always receive the same reply--
‘What? Hng? What’s the boy saying?’
Was everybody deaf?
My problem was eventually diagnosed by a keen-eared master. I was speaking too quickly, far too quickly; I talked at a rate that made me unintelligible to all but myself. The words and thoughts tumbled from my mouth in an entirely pauseless profusion.
For example, ‘Sir, is it really true that there are no snakes in Ireland, sir?’ would emerge as something like ‘Sriseel-troosnayxironss?’
I heard myself plainly and was most hurt and offended when the same insulting word was thrown back at me again and again.
‘Don’t gabble, boy.’
A solution was found by the school in the endearingly Margaret Rutherford form of an extraordinary old lady bedecked with amber beads, lavender water, wispy hair and a Diploma in the Science of Elocution. Every Wednesday and Friday she drove from Cheltenham to Uley in a car that looked like a gigantic Bayswater pram and trained me for an hour in the art of Diction.
She would sit patiently at a table and say to me, dipping her head up from the table and blinking her eyelids with astonishing rapidity as she did so: ‘And turn it down! And turn it down!’
I would obediently repeat, ‘Annidern annidern.’
‘No, dear. “And-ah, turn-ah, it-ah, down-nn!” You see?’
‘And-ah, turn-ah, it-ah, down-nn?’
‘I do not want you to say “and-ah, turn-ah”, my dear. I want you to be aware that the “d” at the end of the “and” must not run into the “T” at the beginning of “turn”, do you see? And. Say “and” for me.’
Did she think I was a baby?
‘Good, Now “Turn”.’
Poor woman, she did get there in the end. She introduced me to the pleasure of hearing a progression of plosive and dental consonants – the sheer physical delight to be derived from the sounds and the sensations of the tongue on the teeth – by teaching me the tale of that extraordinarily persevering and stupid woman called Elizabeth, whose Shrove Tuesday misadventures with rancid butter teach us all how by striving, we might turn disaster into triumph. The story went like this.
‘Betty had a bit of bitter butter and put it in her batter and made her batter bitter. Then Betty put a bit of better butter in her bitter batter and made her bitter batter better,.
From there we moved on to ‘She stood at the door of Burgess’s fish sauce shop, welcoming them in.’
The standing at the door was fine – piece of piss – but the welcoming of them in nearly turned my tonsils inside out.
‘Yes, perhaps that one is too difficult for you, dear.’
Too difficult? For me? Ha! I’d show her.
Hours I spent one weekend mastering the art of welcoming them in. At the next lesson I enunciated it like Leslie Howard on Benzedrine.
‘Very nice, dear. Now I should like you to say: “She stood at the door of Burgess’s fish sauce shop, welcoming him in,”’
Aaaaagh! Disaster. I made a great run for it and fell to the ground in a welter of ‘mimming’ and ‘innimming’, my larynx as tangled as a plate of spaghetti.
‘You see, my dear, I am not interested in you learning these sentences as if they were tongue twisters. I want you to try and feel how to talk. I want you to allow the words to come one after the other. I think you like to compress them all into one bunch. Your mind races ahead of your tongue. I would like your tongue to see the words ahead, each one a little flower on the wayside, that can only be picked up as you pass. Don’t try to snatch at a flower before you have reached it.’
I wriggled in my seat at the soppiness of the image, but it did clarify things for me. Before long I was even able to tell the strange story of the blacksmith’s mother who wants to know just what her son thinks he’s up to with that set of saucepans:
‘Are you copper-bottoming ‘em, my man?’
‘No. I’m aluminiuming ‘em, mum.’
I was able to say: the seething sea ceaseth, and thus sufficeth us, and able to imagine an imaginary menagerie manager, managing an imaginary menagerie.
But many an anemone has an enemy, and her enemy was pace.
‘This is not a fifty-yard dash, my dear. I want you to love every single movement of your tongue and lips and teeth. Every single movement of your tongue and lips and teeth. What is it that I want you to love?’
‘Ev-ery single movement of my tongue and lips and teeth.’
‘Ev’ry, dear, not ev-ery. We do not wish, after all, to sound foreign. But you said there “tongue and lips and teeth”. A few weeks ago you would have said “tung-nips-n-teeth”, wouldn’t you?’
‘And now you know our wonderful secret. How beautiful it is to hear every single movement of your tongue and lips and teeth.’
…within a term I was comprehensible to all… when excited, I was still likely to revert to rushing streams of Stephenese… but essentially I was cured. But something wonderful and new had happened to me, something much more glorious than simply being understood. I had discovered the beauty of speech. Suddenly I had an endless supply of toys: words.
…Language was something more than power then, it was more than my only resource in a world of tribal shouts and athleticism and them, the swimmers and singers, it was also a private gem collection, a sweet shop, a treasure chest.
How heartening to read such an appreciation of a worthy and valuable discipline, even if his experiences were of a kind that might seem old-fashioned now.
 Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia 1840-1940 (Cambridge 2010). Reviewed by Brian Moore: www.australianbookreview.com.au
 Cornerstone Publishing paperback Jan 2004 p102
from The Voice Magazine NSW Speech and Drama Association Spring 2014
editor: Zita Denholm Triple D Books Wagga NSW