Within my lifetime, there has been a shift in how our
society values clarity of our speech.
Decades ago, most
schools required students to present recitations before the
class with the learning objective of speaking clearly.
Parents monitored their children and scolded them when
they mumbled. Clarity was a standard goal to be achieved
Fast talk may confuse
Recently I inquired about cell phone options at a mall
Juliano, the young salesman, gave me a wonderful
example of "speed talk" as he rattled off the various options
of three brands of wireless services. He seemed to feel
good about his ability to race through his pitches, barely
stopping to take an occasional breath. Unfortunately for
him, he was confusing me, not helping me understand,
and giving off an impression that he didn't want to spend
much time with me (lest another customer stop by the
I stopped him twice to clarify his information, but
eventually I gave up, accepted a handful of brochures, and
departed. His rapid-fire speech made me feel uncomfortable,
Result? No sale.
Sloppy speech is hard to understand
Mumbling, slurring words, and fuzzy enunciation are other
difficulties you can often observe. Sometimes with store clerks
and fast-food counter people, but also with telemarketers and
order-takers on the other end of toll-free phone numbers and
people in general.
Although I am quite skilled at guessing what
a mumbler is saying, I still have difficulty and have to ask them
to repeat. (One pleasant exception -- the airline customer service
people. These folks almost always speak clearly.)
Still other clarity problems are caused by filler sounds such as
"ums" and "ahs", and plentiful filler words such as "like" and "you know."
Also, by too little volume in the voice, which requires the listener
a good deal of effort to hear.
Causes of confusing talk?
What factors cause people to develop unintelligible speech
habits? My sense is that one of the most influential factors is
group identity (to belong to a group one should dress like them,
act like them, and talk like them.).
The appearance of being
casual, or cool, or fashionable might be had with "valley girl"
speech or with hip-hop banter. The quest for group identity
trumps other values. Better to be unintelligible but cool than
clear and un-cool.
Sometimes people just don't know any better.
At a recent
church service, I saw a teenager stroll in with his cap on -
sideways. The cap was clearly part of his "costume," and he
didn't take it off throughout the service. Nor did his father
ask him to take it off.
I think they just didn't know what was
appropriate. This is also true of a student or employee who
responds with baggy-pantsed phrases and sentences that, like
their shoes, are not laced up.
As the motto states in the online publication, The Vocabula
Review, "A society is generally as lax as its language."
Another is the effect of ethnic diversity and a certain political
correctness that discourages commenting on ways of speaking.
Remember the "Ebonics" controversy a few years ago? How
dare anyone criticize the dialect that proponents argued was
the "natural language" of many speakers in the neighborhoods?
Description vs prescription
As a specialist in language and communication, I am not a
prescriptivist, meaning that I do not insist on some ideal form
of speech based on a standard dialect.
Instead, I am a pragmatist
who asks if one's manner of speaking facilitates understanding or
not, and if it achieves the desired communication results.
dialects and accents flourish! They spice up the American language
with variety. But can one be understood across the many regional,
ethnic, and cultural dialects?
My litmus test is understandability.
One way to manage this matter is for speakers to function in
more than one dialect. Just as we can learn to speak several
different languages like Japanese and English and use each when
appropriate, we can learn several different dialects - as many readers
For example, when I was working on the ore ships of
the Great Lakes many years ago, I picked up a kind of "sailor-speak"
dialect in order to understand and also to get along with others. When
I returned to university studies, I reverted to "student-speak" dialect.
You do not have to give up - or stamp out - a certain manner
of speaking if it works. However, if it doesn't work (for example,
it prevents succeeding in job interviews or in studies), some changes
are called for.
Otherwise, pain and trouble will be your teachers.