The way it is with enunciation

Published 12:09 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We Americans are sloppy speakers, careless conversationalists, mushy-mouthed mumblers.

This may be true of people in other countries as well, but I’m knowledgeable only about English-speaking populations.

We speak too fast, whisper and fail to enunciate. If you haven’t run into that last word recently, it means to open one’s mouth wide enough to project all those wonderful consonants and vowels that will coordinate into words others can understand.

Too often we do not articulate, that is, pronounce our words clearly.

As I said, I’m writing of English-speaking peoples, so let’s look at our English-speaking friends in Great Britain. I watch a couple BBC television programs. One of them features well-known actors whose English is difficult to understand – mushy mumbling. The other program, with actors just as British and who use funny names for car parts, speak and enunciate splendidly. I understand every word they say. Why the difference?

I also have bad things to say about some Americans on television, especially in commercials or “spots.” The sales pitch frequently is too loud, too fast and garbled. The message would be more effective delivered unobtrusively, moderately and with better enunciation (there’s that word again). This also is true of some newscasters and many game show participants. Game-show hosts, in general, get good marks from me.

As for those spots that include the boss’ kids, the parents may think this is cute, but the children aren’t selling anything when you can’t understand them. I notice some advertisements have added word balloons printing what the child is saying.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Children can be taught to deliver a sales pitch that listeners can understand. When my daughter was in the second grade, a program for parents featured each child in the class reciting a poem. How often have you attended a school program in which little ones participated or showed up for a Sunday school Children’s Day exercise when small children were reciting and noticed kids have a tendency to tuck in their chins, fiddle with their fingers and speak in a whispery, singsong voice? We clap and say how adorable, but wouldn’t it be better if we could understand what they say?

For this program I coached my daughter, both for her benefit and that of the audience. I wanted her to speak so we could understand what she was saying. It took practice. She definitely had that “tuck in your chin” syndrome. However, we got the chin untucked, fingers unfiddled, volume geared up, delivery slowed down and she learned to open her mouth so every wonderful consonant and vowel emerged beautifully.

She was such a hit that her teacher, in awe, came to me and inquired, “How did you do that?” I pointed out that public speaking has to be learned just like any school subject.

Then there are those unsolicited phone calls trying to sell me insurance, unloading info about my credit rating or wanting to empty my septic tank (which I don’t have). The callers speak so fast I interrupt to say, “Please slow down so I can understand you.” (Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the South for only a quarter of century that I still don’t speak “Southern.”) At any rate, occasionally the caller will slow down, but too frequently he does not – that’s when I hang up.

These people phoning probably are paid by the number of calls they make in an allotted time, but being understood the first time they give their spiel would benefit them in the long run.

I like living in North Carolina. I like the people here. I’m not planning to move unless someone starts throwing rotten tomatoes at my house. And who can afford tomatoes at today’s prices? What I have noticed while living here is that some southerners-by-birth, especially women, equate a low, whispery, inarticulate manner of speaking to be a true Southern virtue. When I encounter these individuals, I incline my ear as closely as possible with the hope of understanding at least every third word. Then I can usually make sense of what the speaker is saying – but it isn’t easy.

You know I’m a Yankee, born and bred, and I still retain what some folks here call a “foreign” accent. But dollars to doughnuts, you hear and understand what I say. One dear, little Southern lady once said to me, in her native drawl, “I love to talk to you; I can understand every word you say.”

Of course, I have a big voice – that’s just me, and I also have a husband who is a bit hard of hearing.

My mother, an elementary-school teacher, was my mentor when it came to diction, grammar, articulation, enunciation, stage presence, you name it. After all, I was chosen to play the role of Uncle Sam in my eighth-grade graduation exercises when there were at least 30 boys to chose from. I remember only the first line of that most-important-to-date stage appearance. It was, “I am Uncle Sam.” Who could forget those four words?

I may not have been the most authentic representative of Uncle Sam, but that eighth-grade graduation audience could understand every word I said. Do you suppose that’s why I got the part?

Polly Unterzuber may be reached by e-mail at