I’m a retired English teacher. I know that language use changes, but I still react a little to hear “I laid down for a nap” or “between she and I.” Yet speakers I’ve heard using those include fellow English teachers, college professors and distinguished TV reporters.
There is also the neutral-gender issue that’s been happening on and off since the 1980s. Common sense will rule. “Sister” will not be replaced by “sibling” nor “manhole” by “person hole.” “Guys” already covers males and females. “Their” comes readily for “his/her” when referring to “everyone.”
What bothers me, however, is carelessly articulated spoken English. I find myself often saying, “I’m sorry. Could you repeat that? I just didn’t catch your words.” And, no, I’m not going deaf.
I can hear the kitchen clock ticking from the bedroom. I can hear cicadas in summer and water dripping from icicles onto the walk in winter.
I sometimes think of the ad from my childhood featuring the Bell Telephone operator presented as “The Voice With a Smile.” You could count on that crisp, courteous, professional clarity when you dialed O. Always.
I also recall specific incidents when I was traveling alone in Europe after college. I tried to use the elements of whatever foreign language and was so grateful when the information giver smiled and replied in slow, distinct phrases.
But slurred announcements in American airports, on commuter trains or in restaurant queues are harder and harder to understand. And speaking of restaurants, how about the challenge of conversing as the noise grows louder and LOUDER?
The same happens at parties, banquets and receptions. You soon find yourself actually shouting and often left hoarse.
When I was formerly in the classroom, I could actively teach articulation awareness. I urged students to extend vowel sounds and to voice consonants. A quick exercise was to circle the room with each student reading to the first mark of punctuation in a designated passage of our literature text.
We moved on to choral reading with separate groups I judged as high voices, deep voices and soft voices. I dictated light penciling to mark passage assignments. I found that when students recite together, they are more wiling to let their voices relax. They are not embarrassed by the “spotlight effect” and will easily experiment with tone, volume and articulation as directed.
We occasionally decided that certain phrases be echoed or reflective comments be added. We realized that a particular combination of voices might be really striking. For example, Maria and Philippa created two-part harmony; united, Dan’s, Nate’s and David’s basses made thunder.
We were both performers and audience of this, our English. I yet recall the raw vitality of Sandburg’s “Chicago” with the heavy voices accusing “wicked sneer alive you are brutal!” The light voices made an aquarelle of Emily Dickinson’s sea: “An everywhere of silver/ With ropes of sand.” Braided groups let us ponder the wonder of Gatsby’s “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and his “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.”
It does not matter if the accent is General American standard or a regional variation including racial, gender or age influences. Whatever, it should be clearly heard.
Word processors may make obsolete the ideal of cursive Palmer or upright Italic handwriting, but nothing can substitute for the beauty, power and clarity of articulated English in one of its multitudinous varieties. Use it “to the t” or — lose it.