Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?

So complained Professor Henry Higgins in the musical hit play and movie, "My Fair Lady." Dear Henry would be alarmed to know that proper pronunciation tips are as close as anyone's computer. No need for the tortuous methods he used on Eliza Doolittle to extinguish her Cockney whine.

We don't all need to speak as if we're from Mayfair, but some of our Midwestern/Southern drawls could use a bit of tightening up. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, though a fine governor and an all-around swell person, did poorly on national TV. Of course, she was nervous. But the problem is that she is plagued with Kansas-speak, a style of speech as flat as our prairie terrain. Perhaps some tone training with Prof. Higgins' xylophone would help.

We tend to pick up the pronunciations of people around us. When I revisited my mid-Missouri hometown, it wasn't long before I, swept away by nostalgia for those familiar vocal eccentricities, began sounding as if I'd never left town. When I had extended visits to a client in East Texas, the "y'alls" were flying everywhere, out of my own mouth. And after 10 days in London and surrounds, I had, if not an accent, a Brit-like phrasing in my vocal expressions. And when I visit New Yawk? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Accents can be seductive. A young woman I knew went to Ireland for one year and kept the brogue, even after she'd been back home in Nebraska for years. In a sense, perhaps she never did come home. But she was an actress, RenFest regular performer, and so on. The creative performer is allowed some latitude, I suppose. It's not as if a CPA or a plumber did the same thing. His or her co-workers would be whispering "Weirdo" at the snack machines, and such a far-out choice might eventually endanger the person's job. Unless s/he could say she'd had a stroke that left him or her with foreign accent syndrome. That'd shut 'em up, but quick.

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