Charlotte – foreign, a strong accent, but every word heard

This afternoon (Saturday) I was in a sizeable party of people touring York Minster with one of the official guides, a German girl named Charlotte. At the same time the Black Dyke brass band was rehearsing for a concert this evening.

Many have suggested to me over the years that orthoepic (i.e. correct, whatever that means) vowel sounds make you more coherent. I don’t agree and say so. I always urge people to cherish their accent and preserve it as an important part of their personality, taking other steps to perfect their diction – steps like those I describe in my booklet, Every Word Heard.

Charlotte could not have made my case more powerfully. She has a strong German accent; our party exceeded 20 in number so couldn’t cluster tightly around her; the brass band were making a hell of a lot of noise (though a nice one); the acoustic in the cathedral allowed the sound of a practising brass band to penetrate the whole building and to deny the existence of a quiet corner; and I am quite deaf. Frequently she gave up speaking, believing that she could not be heard, and every time it was I who piped up to tell her that she was coping brilliantly.

And she was. Everyone takes a little more care over speaking a foreign language and often that means not indulging in idle habits like squashing syllables together. Charlotte spoke highly fluent, idiomatic English – but clearly. And as a result, against that catalogue of huge opposition, made her every word heard.

Charlie Chaplin – a little dated, but hey!

I was invited to look at the final speech in the Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. How could I resist? A critique of a fictional speech is a first for this blog, and it has been hailed in some quarters as the finest speech of all time.

Is it? No. There could never be any such thing. Nevertheless, of its time it is a pretty fine example.

Bald opening! And you thought the concept was revolutionary!

Are you surprised that, for a star of silent movies, his enunciation is so good? Don’t be. He was not always a movie star: he paid his early dues on the live stage, and you didn’t get anywhere in those pre-radio-microphone days without having learnt this facet of your craft. I know his vowels, to the modern ear, are a little pale and clipped, and also he’s part-rolling his ‘r’s (a little like Olivier in the same period); but listen to how he always speaks right to the end of every word, never swallowing a syllable. If you found yourself having to speak in a large hall with a PA system that had broken down, that is how to enunciate. And he’s not over-enunciating. At 0:45, “Human beings are like that,” the final ‘t’ is barely touched…but it’s there!

I mentioned the paleness of his vowels, but it’s not with all of them. Yes, at 2:30 he speaks of people being treated ‘like kettle’, but that vowel was the fashion of the day. Also the fashion was to make the long ‘o’ sound desperately pale, almost like a long ‘a’. I once heard someone address Noel Coward, calling him “Nail”. However listen to Chaplin at 2:20. The ‘o’ in the first syllable of ‘soldiers’ is really quite dark, and there’s a reason for this. He learnt to enunciate correctly from the front of his mouth, and that always darkens the ‘o’ sound. I feel myself getting on too much of a hobby horse here, so I shall cease this subject. I cover it all in my booklet, Every Word Heard.

Chaplin’s eyes are fixed to a little below the camera lens. Is this supposed to represent humility, or is there an idiot-board there?  I don’t know, but let us remember that he directed this film, and directing steals a hell of a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent learning your lines.

When he gets worked up towards the end of the speech is when the age of the film really shows. No speaker could get away with that sort of ranting, stylized oratory in front of an audience of today. The man he was lampooning, Adolph Hitler (or Adenoid Hynkel, as they called him in the film) got away with it – but that was then.

What about the value of the speech’s message? My problem is that because it calls for all sorts of obviously desirable things – freedom, happiness (or, rather, heppiness), brotherly love, etc. it can be cited as supporting any political doctrine that claims to achieve those things – i.e. all of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Soviet commissars used to wheel it out to promote their disgusting creed. I know that it calls upon people to throw off dictatorial yokes – a consummation devoutly to be wished – but how many dictators would admit to using yokes? This ain’t aimed at me, guv, honest!

I know what I choose to assume the speech means, and I like it for that reason; but …

At 3:40 he calls for the doing away of national barriers, and immediately I’m onto another hobby horse. That concept is superficially very seductive, but withstands no examination whatever. Consider: someone has to run things. In order that they do so on behalf of their fellows and not on behalf of themselves or anyone else, they need to be accountable chiefly to their fellows. Tyranny thrives on distance between governors and governed, because accountability diminishes proportionally. Administrative units should therefore be as small as practicable. World government would be guaranteed to become tyrannical, exploitative, incompetent and corrupt. Look at the EU, and then multiply several-fold. What a ghastly prospect!

All right, I have attempted to encapsulate a very complicated matter into a single paragraph. I concede there is more to it than that, but be in no doubt that sovereign national barriers are A Good Thing, particularly if the national administration fosters localism. Good! I’m glad I got that off my chest!

I’ve never seen the whole film of The Great Dictator. I think I shall get it.

Obama – speaking flaws.

President Obama is an interesting study for me. Since he first started campaigning for the US presidency, he has been hailed by nearly everyone as a great orator; yet his speaking is flawed in so many areas! For instance, his enunciation is terrible. A reader who happens to be a past trainee has suggested I do a critique of his acceptance speech after the recent election; and that is firmly on my to-do list. Meanwhile here, from the Auraclenewsletter of March 2011, is an observation on how basic errors took the shine off an important, high-profile speech.

On 1 February, 2011, President Obama spoke at The White House about the (then) political turmoil in Egypt. Watching it, I was thinking what a copybook example he was giving us on how not to enunciate. Syllables were going AWOL all over the place. [If you want to know my teaching on enunciation, my book The Face & Tripod covered it briefly and my later booklet Every Word Heard focused specifically on it.]

And then he hit us with this triad,

An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.”

As triads go it’s actually a rather clunky example; but because it was a triad it achieved the desired effect – worldwide headlines.

In The Face & Tripod there’s a Chapter that deals with triads. In it I was principally concerned with using them covertly in order not to alienate the more cynical and sophisticated, triad conscious, members of the audience (because the business world is my niche and business audiences can be very cynical). And with my tongue firmly in my cheek I concluded the chapter with a tiny paragraph that was a veritable orgy of triads – four of them in just over two lines. And I have since found several readers who never even noticed – that’s covert for you!

But let me justify my use of the word ‘clunky’, to criticise Obama’s triad. If you are going to deploy an overt triad, at least make it elegant! Those who have attended my Master-classes are familiar with anaphora: a series of phrases or sentences whose beginnings are the same. Had Obama merely left off the two occasions he used the word ‘it’ we’d have been presented with a triad anaphora. Compare the two by saying them aloud.

His –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • it must be peaceful, and
  • it must begin now.”

Mine –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • must be peaceful, and
  • must begin now.”

By simply removing a tiny word I contend that the latter is smoother, more elegant and rhythmic. The former is smudgy and clumsy.  Clunky.

Am I splitting hairs?  Yes of course I am.  But when you are preparing an important speech you should consider the potential value of every fraction of every percent.

And yet, for all that, he got his headlines! There’s the ultimate lesson: triads excite interest – even when they’re clunky. So use them.

Perhaps while I’m about it I also ought to give an example that justifies my dismissal of Obama’s enunciation.  He has clearly worked very hard on portraying statesmanship: his body-language, from his scalp to his toes, screams authority. As part of that he has adopted a manner of speaking that seeks to defy contradiction. That manner causes him to drop heavily at the ends of phrases and sentences. In so doing he loses final syllables. There are dozens of examples: let me give you just one that repeats often. The word ‘people’ invariably comes out as ‘peep’.

It is perfectly possible to deliver that vocal authority without losing syllables: you just need to know how. Maybe someone will tell him – if he’ll listen. Heads of State really do need to get it right.