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Why can’t the English learn to talk? - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Sep 21, 2022

Why can’t the English learn to speak? Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady (1964)

Let’s talk about talking

Why are the British, when they congregate, at ease only if they talk about the weather? A possible answer is that their education system values above all else reading, writing and arithmetic.

I’ve always found that odd. It’s not just that only one of ‘the three rs’ actually starts with an r. It’s more that concentrating on this trio neglects the activity that occupies much more of our time than maths or the written word and is central to our ability to communicate. I’m talking about talking. Why aren’t we taught how to talk?

I can hear a clatter of dissent. The weather’s jolly interesting. We talk about it because it’s uncontroversial, and we don’t want to give offence. Anyway, we chat about our health, and sport, much more than the weather. And some people are indeed taught how to talk: there’s elocution and rhetoric and oratory for would-be public speakers. Gresham College in London has been appointing professors of rhetoric since the 16th century. Moreover, we don’t need to be taught how to speak. We just pick it up as children: walk at one; talk at two.

If you think that’s all right, I invite you to turn on the telly or the radio. Have you not sighed when hearing on the Today programme yet another interviewee declare, ‘It’s been a rollercoaster. I was in a good place, but so many challenges, I had mental-health issues. Like, I’ve been on a journey really. Now I’m in a bad place’? Have you not heard foreigners, from footballers to flood victims, speak eloquently while their British counterparts struggle to express themselves?

Have you not growled as politicians spew forth platitudes about ‘level playing fields’, ‘perfect storms’, ‘windows of opportunity’, ‘toxic’ this and ‘multiple’ that, ‘iconic’ anything, ‘groundbreaking’ everything, ‘thoughts and prayers’ and all on ‘a daily basis’?

And have you not reached for a figurative rotten tomato to throw at those actors who swallow their words and mumble their lines?

I’m not suggesting that children be taught to orate like Demosthenes or Cicero, though I believe all would benefit from learning and declaiming poetry. Nor do I share Professor Henry Higgins’s horror of phonetical infelicities: as far as I’m concerned, the rine in Spine can run minely dahn the drine. I’m all for regional accents. I don’t even mind some mangled grammar interspersed with an occasional ‘you know’ during the endless vox pops. It’s the vacuous clichés that get to me.

The British are proud of their writers, their prose and their poetry, but they speak much less well than they write. Perhaps that’s because everyday speech goes largely unrecorded, and therefore uncorrected. It’s become a habit.

Until the 19th century, it was impossible to reproduce talk except by writing it down. Even today, when digital and electronic recording abounds, most of the speech put down on paper has been considered, if not prepared, before being uttered, and often it has then been tidied up. The ers, ums and ahems are removed. Obscenities and profanities are purged. The grammar may be corrected. Even Hansard, Parliament’s ‘substantially verbatim’ official record, removes repetitions and allows MPs to burnish their syntax after they have made a speech.

In any event, most of what we say is lost in the breeze – so why bother to teach people to speak well? The quantity of talk now broadcast by radio and television has vastly increased, and has been amplified many more times by the internet. We are thus able to hear ‘authentic’ chat, gossip and argument all the time.

Much of this is good. Broadcasting, for example, may have hastened the decline of dialects in Britain, but by providing channels in Welsh and Gaelic it has also helped to save endangered languages. And the internet gives a public platform to almost everyone. Future scholars interested in everyday talk will have much richer sources than their predecessors.

But how much of our extempore ranting and cursing on social media will strike later listeners as well put, let alone eloquent? Not a lot, I fear. For that, perhaps we should look to another kind of daily intercourse, conversation. That’s a challenge I’ll share with you next month.