Why’s speech so formal?

    It was enjoyable writing recently about dialects that people employ, depending on the situation.
     More than a year ago, I wrote about mall-dwelling, braces-wearing teenie-boppers named Jennifer whose every third word is “like,” as in, “And I’m like duh,” or “Like let’s go eat like a hamburger.” or “Like what do you want to do today?” The most recent exposition on language featured my take on how most people talk. People do not speak the way they read. On a good day, with a stiff tail wind, a writer can plunk down about 14 words per minute. That same person will speak 140 words a minute.


     So in the process of communicating orally, we slur words, run them together, elide troublesome sounds and even have the luxury of repeating expressions, such as the wretched “ya know.” In my speech classes, anyone who uttered “ya know” got fined a semester’s tuition, then got expelled and finally was required to write an essay on “How I spent my summer vacation.” Regrettably, years later, my sister Dolores pointed out that I’d uttered that wretched expression three times in a brief chat with her. Why can’t I practice what I preach? Maybe I should run for office.
     It’s informative to simply listen. Last week, while playing with friends, my grandson and namesake borrowed my videocam and recorded a documentary. He did this after having read my column on comic book jargon, and he performed a variation on that.
     In his best mock-British voice, Arthur, all of 8 years old, asked, “And what is the purpose of that device?” I’d been only half listening but perked up at the word “device.” Well, the device was a trampoline Steven Lobdell had been bouncing on. Not to be outdone in the carefully-chosen-words department, Steven grabbed the camera and conducted his own interview, throwing in words whose meanings he and Arthur might only guess at, such as “And to what does your question pertain?” The entire performance was not too shabby. It’s proof that no matter what, people filming a documentary, as these boys were doing, are never going to sound totally natural. People invariably reach for the choicest words when giving a performance. The unnaturalness of the spoken word could result from the ham actor factor, or the Benelli Effect that dictates that the instrument that measures something also modifies it. In order for an oral thermometer to give a reading, it must first either cool or warm the person’s mouth.
     A person being monitored can never be perfectly natural. Try it yourself.
     Have someone place a microphone in front of you and ask you to “say something funny.” Regarding the “dialect” column, two people asked whether I’d gone too far and even advocated sloppy use of the language, as I replicated comic-book-type expressions. Did it appear that I was encouraging people to compress three words into one?
     I was simply having fun over a real phenomenon. Speech is a rushed form of writing, and it’s almost impossible to sound the way one writes, without coming across as pedantic.
     One of my passions is coaching young people who are about to perform. During a school language festival of yesteryear (back then when teachers affined language arts, almost as much as athletics), a parent asked if I would listen to her daughter rehearse an original essay.
     Every word the girl emitted seemed forced, w-a-y too formal. In short, it just wasn’t her (or it wasn’t she, as my English teacher would say).
     So I asked her to get away from the script — tear it up, which she did reluctantly. She went over her points in a much more relaxed fashion, and after one more dry run, she was ready. And she won that event.
     Listen to commencement speakers and orators at public holiday events. Notice how they’ve taken the time to insert a host of poly-syllabic words which appear strained when they’re being read aloud.
     Even presidents come off as strained when they speak the words “strive,” “resolute,” “resolve” and “prevail.” These are words we never hear, except by a president trying to justify why U.S. troops are between Iraq and a hard place.
     Most presidents have a battery of speech writers who write a speech the president reads. It’s no wonder such speeches come across as stiff and awkward.
     Irrespective of spelling and pronunciation, the spoken and written languages — any languages — are not the same thing, although each form of expression has its own flow, rhythm and beauty.
     So whenever I have my nose in a book and my wife chooses that time to recite a list of the chores she has waiting for me, I’ll often explain that I love the sound of her voice, but “at this moment, I’m reveling in a written form of expression just as lovely as your mellifluous voice.” It works sometimes. Trouble is that “at this moment” has become, in her mind, my way of dodging work. I don’t know where she gets that idea.

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