It was an early morning of November, 1967, and I as an understudy was being frantically rehearsed to step up and take over a role in a very important theatre company at that day’s matinée. I was being rehearsed now by the company’s legendary voice-coach. I had already had some lessons with her but, at the age of twenty, I of course knew everything and had always argued that I wasn’t doing what she accused me of. Now, only hours from execution (so to speak), I changed my plea and asked for guidance.
My diction crime was Disproportionate Syllable Stress (DSS). It is particularly widespread among people who are trying to speak expressively. Today it is a bugbear of mine, and one of the worst offenders is today’s subject.
Barack Obama delivered this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Words in English, like in most western languages, have syllable stress. For example, the word itself – “syllable” – has three syllables, of which we stress the first. The other two are subordinated, but we still pronounce them and people still hear them.
Then up on a platform to make a speech, we raise our voices and in the process we hammer those stressed syllables. We should also hammer the subordinate ones, though proportionately less heavily, so that the audience hears the whole of every word.
DSS is when we don’t do all that. The stressed syllables are hammered and the subordinate ones are left to look after themselves, so in that example what is heard is “syll – -“. Now let’s turn to Obama’s speech, and we don’t have to wait long for examples.
At 01:31 he says “It is a singular honour…” and our brains automatically fill in the gap and we think we hear all that, but what we actually hear is, “It is a singular hon-“
- 01:56 “…and a few confess-“
- 02:06 “I am a very good danc-“
This is just during the jokey opening. Once he gets to the meat of the speech more examples come thick and fast.
Because our brains are so adept at grasping the sense of a sentence and filling in the gaps for us we don’t notice – unless we happen to be a sad idiot like me who winces at each example. So you may think it doesn’t matter. But it is fundamentally bad practice, because the sense is not always obvious.
In a play I directed some years ago, a character had the following line, “Are you dissatisfied with my work?” to which the other character in the scene had to reply, “No.” I could not get the first character to pronounce audibly the first syllable of “dissatisfied”. It is a subordinate syllable and she persistently swallowed it. I eventually gave up, changed her word to “satisfied” and the other character’s reply to “Yes”.
All syllables matter, and Obama swallows far too many – usually the ends of words. To me it marks him out as a rank amateur. You’d have thought someone would have told him. Perhaps someone did and he didn’t believe it – any more than I did of myself all those years ago.
My excuse was the arrogance of youth. What’s his?