Saturday, September 19, 2015

To Speak Impeccably: The Eloquence of Understatement

 "...genius for language lies in understatement ..."
Walter Kirn

Language suffers from chronic exaggeration.  Words which once swelled rich with meaning become deflated and worthless.  Impeccable speech, however, is marked by well-measured words, and is eloquent in its simplicity and reserve.  There is eloquence in understatement.

A beautiful example of the eloquence of understatement is found in the opening text of the Bible, where the creation of this magnificent earth is described in measured tones: "... and it was good." The restraint of the word good infuses it with rich meaning and touching eloquence.

Contrast this with popular handling of the word awesome.  Here is a word which should be reserved for things that leave us wide-eyed and speechless with awe, but is mindlessly thrown about on things like t-shirts and cheeseburgers.  When words are flung carelessly, they become meaningless and make our language lifeless and dull.  If a tasty cheeseburger is elevated to awesome, what is left to describe the marvels of a baby's birth or the vastness of the Milky Way?

A hallmark of impeccable speech is a tone of understatement rather than hyperbole.  Popular and exaggerated words, including love, amazing, unbelievable, and incredible are avoided.

Impeccable Speech Habit:  Carefully measure words to avoid exaggeration.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Speak Impeccably: Stop It, "You Guys"!

"Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months
learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop."
Professor Henry Higgins

One terribly unrefined habit of speech in American culture is addressing a group of people as "you guys". A few generations ago, it was considered bad form to call a young man a guy, let alone any member of the fairer sex.  But now it has become so commonplace that I once heard a young school administrator address a group of senior citizens visiting the elementary school on Grandparents' Day as "you guys". No one seemed to notice anything improper about addressing a congregation graced by many silver-headed grandmothers as you guys.

This brings us to the first pillar of impeccable speech: Words are handled carefully to be fitting and proper in the given situation.  The French have a word to describe the idea of a thing being fitting and proper: comme il faut (kaw-meel foh) which means as it should be.

To speak impeccably one must choose words thoughtfully, considering whether or not their true meanings make them fitting in the circumstances.  This is the antithesis of sloppy use of language, such as addressing a group that includes grandmothers as you guys.  Impeccable speech avoids the phrase "you guys", especially when addressing any other than a group of pubescent males.  Instead, simply use the word you; or if that seems ambiguous, and you wish to clearly indicate that you are speaking to everyone in the group, say "all of you."

For example, when speaking to a couple:  "Would you guys like to come over for coffee after dinner?"  Instead, say:  "Would you two like to come over for coffee after dinner?"

Or when speaking to a group of mixed company:  "Would you guys like something to drink?"  Instead, say:  "Would anyone like something to drink?"

Impeccable Speech Habit:  Avoid the phrase you guys.

Photo: Audrey Hepburn takes elocution lessons from Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964. The Kobal Collection

Sunday, September 13, 2015

To Speak Impeccably

“Language most shows a man:  Speak, that I may see thee.” - Benjamin Johnson

Speech is exposing, and in the end, brutally honest.  I may dress looking every inch a lady; but as soon as I open my mouth, my speech begins either to confirm or deny my appearance.

How painstakingly we polish our outward appearance, while scarcely giving a thought to refining our speech. Yet it is our manner of speaking which better defines us.  Many flawlessly coiffured women fall headlong in estimation once they open their mouths.

In his brilliant play Pygmalion, the famed playwright George Bernard Shaw depicts a society which marked a lady or gentleman by his or her manner of speaking.  In the story, phonetics professor Henry Higgins makes a wager that he can reform a bedraggled Cockney flower girl to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by training her in gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech.

When it comes to impeccable speech, we are closer to becoming a society of bedraggled Cockney flower girls than guests at the ambassador’s garden party.  Perhaps we can pass as dukes and duchesses as long as we keep our mouths shut.  But alas, few of us do that very well.

So, what makes a lady's speech impeccable?  Tomorrow we'll begin to "codify" impeccable speech in the form of habits which will prepare even a Cockney flower girl to attend the ambassador's garden party.

Principle:  A lady speaks impeccably.  

Photo:  Promotional picture of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in the musical film adaptation of My Fair Lady, by Cecil Beaton, 1964.