By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
As I travel on aircraft, in airports, and cities that I visit around the world, I have noted that people of any nationality speaking in languages I don’t understand sometimes appear to me to be speaking in cultured tones or not. What is the cause of cultured speech in any nation or region of a nation? What do I mean by cultured, cultivated, or refined? What do I perceive as coarse or vulgar in speech? Obviously, these qualities have a relationship to how well reared, educated, and trained are the people in the humanities. You and I, without becoming pretentious, should seek to use the refined qualities of speech if we can define them sufficiently well. Let’s see if we can do that.
For starters, consider accent. I was born and raised in Greece and came to America speaking English with a Greek accent. After a time, I got tired being asked where I was from, especially at job interviews. So I spent hours listening to radio news and imitating the announcers, repeating phrases and sentences after them like a child. I was left with a trace of an accent that people had trouble placing where I came from in the States, but did not identify it as a foreign accent. I rather talked like a radio announcer then, a bit pompously, quite succinctly, somewhat ridiculously. People perceived me as a college graduate, although I was not yet done with my education.
When it comes to accents, I think of Eliza Doolittle of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” or even more so of Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady.” Eliza’s speech was Cockney English in accent, style, and content, definitely on the vulgar side. Professor Henry Higgins eliminated the Cockney accent and partially turned Eliza’s speech into posh English; but the content of Eliza’s speech remained that of the gutter. Still, Eliza had a quality in her which surpassed her background; she was a good girl and ambitious. She wanted to be a better person, to rise above the condition of her no-good father Alfred Doolittle.
As a university professor I too once met a young woman who liked to speak with a British accent although she was born in America with a background not so posh. She had good qualities and fine aspirations, so I married her. She advanced educationally and socially in due time. So what we express may translate into what we become eventually.
On Andros, Greece, my closest neighbor Bob Headley hails from Yorkshire in Northern England and retains his regional accent, a somewhat difficult speech for me to follow, but his writing is good standard English which I envy. I can follow the talk of Maggie, Bob’s wife, more readily; she’s from Wales. My interest, however, is not in regional accents. In the Southern States of America people speak very well with a drawl, rather leisurely. When I lived in North Carolina for a year I naturally picked up the local accent, speaking like a Southerner.
In Greece there are still many regional dialects, such as that of Crete and of Epirus but the Athenian dialect general prevails as Standard English or Oxford English is generally used in the British media, especially at BBC, and by educated people. Such speech is also associated with Received Pronunciation or RP, and is the speech of the affluent, influential, and powerful in Great Britain. India had hundreds of dialects and languages when India joined the British Empire, but now English unites the provinces in a common language both in India and Pakistan, although those two regions separated because of religion, Hinduism versus Islam.
Religious feeling is part of any speech, of course, and colors our speech with idioms.
I am not interested here in the quality of religious character, but in the quality of culture inherent in speech, whatever the language or regional dialect. That is the quality of being a gentleman or lady no matter what your nationality, background, even your education, although a good education can play a big role in a cultured individual’s speech.
My dad did not graduate from college, although he did attend college in the evenings before getting married and assuming heavy work loads. He educated himself by acquiring an extensive library on a variety of subjects. His got a self administered liberal education, the best kind. He also liked to write stories and essays and associate with learned people. He was a born gentleman in appearance, behavior and speech in Greek, French, Turkish, and some English. I never heard him use swear words, with the rare exception of “damn,” in Turkish, when he was very angry. By comparison I was born an ass, according to my mother, and I had to acquire some culture and gentle behavior the hard way.
The gentle tones of speech is what I’m after here, recognizable in English, Greek, Turkish, German, Chinese, Japanese, any language, any accent. Poor speech is rough, irritating, creaky, squeaky, and cacophonous in general. On an airplane, train, boat, in a restaurant with people from all over the world I can hear vulgar speech and gentle speech too. I prefer gentle speech to hear and to make, don’t you?
Unfortunately with aging the voice tends to become less pleasant, more hoarse, as the throat wrinkles and roughens, and the vocal cords get more rigid. We can’t help that, that’s why great singers sometimes have to retire at such a point. We can at least learn to keep our voices low and relaxed. A relaxed throat produces better sounds.
Much can be done to improve the appeal of speech too by keeping redundant noises from the throat to a minimum. Again, people can create much unpleasantness by humphing, clearing their throat, raising the tone to a high pitch, or yelling. Gentle people don’t yell; they keep their cool at all times. A Oxford don, or a Cambridge don, is calm and deliberate in speech, even a little amused or jocular. It’s a pleasure to listen to a cultivated Oxford person, exuding self confidence and charm, or hear talk from a person of wit and intelligence from any nation or culture.
I have noticed that people of lower social and intellectual status tend to speak, make facial expressions, and generally act with excessive emotion, as opposed to the cultured people who are more cerebral and reserved, with relaxed faces. I would like to be more cerebral, more controlled emotionally than I am, never to get upset and over excited even in the most difficult circumstances, to maintain a pleasant rhythm in what I say.
Yes, the rhythms of speech have much to do with a good speaking voice. Every person has a rhythm peculiar to that individual, and we also have rhythms, cadences, that reflect our mental condition and our level of culture. I can hear those rhythms in foreign voices and enjoy the good ones even though I may not understand one word of what is spoken. I would like to incorporate such fine rhythms in my speech. Reciting great poetic works in English will probably help, even reciting well- crafted prose by such masters as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. What do you think?
You don’t have to want a career in public speaking or politics to develop an appealing voice. In business, in government, in education, in selling any product or service a good voice is a powerful asset. Of course, you express yourself, your character when you speak and you cannot hide who you really are; it will come out between your words. Be a good person; you’re likely to develop a good voice. Yet, what we express, like a smile we put on our faces, does change us in the direction we display. Laugh and you’ll feel a little bit better, even if you were somewhat depressed to start. Put a whine in your voice and see how quickly you lose friends and alienate people. Smile and be kind in your voice and people are likely to smile and be kind back at you. Even, if they don’t, you’ll still be ahead by doing it. Why be upset and sore when you can be happy?