Receive my ‘Read. Write. Run. Repeat.’ newsletter

Regular updates of my reviews and commentary direct to your inbox.

What was that you said?

Diction: a person’s way of pronouncing words

Such a simplistic (and I do mean simplistic) definition of a word with so many shades of meaning.

And one that is widely open to a plethora of subtle differences.

Surely the emphasis should be less on the speaker’s  way of  pronunciation and much more on the clarity of what pours forth from their mouth.

There are almost limitless ways of pronouncing a word. Factors include whether it is in the speaker’s native vocabulary plus their level of education, and hence, familiarity, with the word at issue.

But no matter how much all these subtleties are overcome, comprehension is nigh impossible if there is lack of clarity. And that is the crux of this diatribe.

There was a time when diction was part of the school curriculum. Pupils were relentlessly drilled on the vowels, and how our mouths should be shaped to enunciate them.

This was done at an early age – a natural accompaniment to learning to read.

As you read, so shall you speak. And do so with the utmost clarity, regardless of regional dialects.

How else can you expect people to understand the message you are trying to impart?

Projection was another component of those lessons in diction. The theme: make yourself heard and guard against mumbling.

Throw your voice to the other end of the room, where a rigorous tutor stood with ruler at the ready to rap the knuckles of any child whose voice was deemed too faint.

A mere whisper in the wind would never suffice.

But it was not all about decibel levels.  Prime importance was clarity.

Such as that achieved by the divas of the opera world. They can utter a heroine’s dying sigh that is heard with equal clarity in the front row of the stalls and the very back of the “gods”.

Oh that such clarity abounded today. Instead we have to cope with a cacophony of rapid fire utterances delivered with scarcely a pause for breath.

Words tumble over each other; sentences collide in this headlong rush of verbiage.

Little wonder that so many people now resort to the use of subtitles when watching TV.

This is not because they are deaf or hard of hearing but simply because they can make little sense of the words that are being hurled at them.

Even with utmost concentration and our eyes fixed firmly on the speaker it is a challenge of comprehension to fully understand what is being said.

Turn away from the screen and there is little hope of receiving the full message. It is the Tower of Babel resurrected.

This is  not an issue restricted to television, mobile phones and landlines; it is universal. Wherever one is confronted with the need to understand and respond – shops, restaurants, bars, all service situations – the lines of communication are fuzzy and fraught.

Good diction has become an endangered species.

Words are chewed and mangled before being spat out. Delivery is too fast to guarantee clarity.

It is as if those employed to deliver messages to the masses are paid by the word.  Instructed to rattle off as many as they can in the sixty seconds allotted them.

The BBC was once revered as a leader in the realm of diction; of ensuring every word was not only received but also understood.

Not any more. Auntie mumbles and gabbles along with the rest of the herd. Even fosters it.

A prime example is the spasmodic lead host of The One Show, the Jones girl, who jabbers and babbles whatever it is she is paid well in excess of £400,000 a year to deliver.

And subtitles are of little help as they are unable to keep up with her untamed torrent  of words I have yet  to transcribe.

A similar excessive wage is also paid to (not earned by) the softly spoken Fiona – presenter of Antiques Roadshow who confuses that role with her other duties as newsreader.

Thus dramatic news is often delivered in the low revered tone she uses when handling a precious antique. Her whispered news is as difficult to understand as her hushed and mumbled appreciation of  a Constable etching.

Both could learn much from their ever lucid marathon running colleague, Sophie, or from the well modulated voices of  Clive, Reeta and the now sadly departed Huw.

Or they could spend forty-five minutes in Pointless distraction and study Alexander Armstrong’s excellent enunciation.

And it has been a Wimbledon delight to come across Qasa Alom, for whom no subtitle or hearing aids are required during his evening summary.

However, it is not the TV watching and movie-going that is of greatest concern. Most of that sits in the take it or leave it basket.

The real stress is found in the mundane world of daily life. Those brisk and breezy waiting staff who talk as if performing a rap song.

The phone callers who leave unintelligible messages that may or may not not be urgent and an indecipherable string of numbers for you to return their call.

Then, if you do make contact, the conversation becomes a series of “Please slow down” and “I cannot understand you” or “Please  speak more clearly.”

And so they do. For a few enlightening seconds before slipping back into their  natural patter.  A fast and furious spattering of words.

As for advertising by way of the spoken word . . . forget it. Save your millions spent on promotional verbal spillage.

Not a word has ever been understood. Every four-minute ad break passes in a meaningless blur of scrambled sound.

Without making too much of a sweeping generalisation, it is the younger generations that are most at fault.

They have been bred and raised on short garbled sentences, on patois, vernaculars and the language of the streets and pop music screamers. And on texts, tweets and baffling emojis – a shorthand world where good diction never stood a chance.

A prime example being Whatcha Say?  This aptly titled and interminable pop song by a Jason Derula is hailed by many as “the best ever”.

To which one can only respond, “Really, heaven help us” and offer up yet another prayer to the gods of clear pronunciation.

Fine, if this is what counts for communication among their tribes.

But when conversing with the far wider community more attention is needed to achieving at least a modicum of clarity.

Otherwise it is soon going to be a world of crossed wires all round.

What’s that you said?








Picture credit: Senior Planet, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, 10 June 2013
Let the battle begin – again
Chasing Cleeves: always a killer trip for crime lovers

Leave a comment