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Accentuate the Positive

June 15, 1986|Zan Thompson

Three weeks from this Friday, the Lady in the Harbor will be standing tall, the scaffolding no longer caging her, the folds of her Roman matron's robe gleaming in the sunlight of the Fourth of July.

The President will push a button that will send a laser beam to illuminate the torch she holds aloft. There will be speeches. On that we can depend. Speeches about the diversification of America, of the rich fabric of our country, each colored thread weaving the story of the coming of new people to the shores of America. There will be lots said about each wave of immigrants bringing its own culture to add to the mosaic of America. Lots of high-flown verbiage.

And a great deal of what is said will be true. That is why I am distressed to see that once again someone is trying to homogenize our speech, make us all sound like that unfortunate woman who answers the telephone information requests. She is so refined, I am seized with the desire to meet her and tell her that I know a couple of speech therapists who could help her lose that unctuous, fake lady tone that sounds as if it might be oozing out of a sticky bun.

Too much time spent with people who have had voice training is like drowning in vanilla pudding. I always have a terrible desire to say something quite rude, maybe even vulgar. Oh, not really but almost.

Paul Smeyak, who is telecommunications (now, there's an unfortunate, cobbled-up word) department chairman at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is the leader of the pack.

Smeyak's unfortunate efforts were reported in this newspaper last week saying, "The latest status symbol among people whose speech twangs, slurs or otherwise localizes them is the 'general American accent,' speech therapists say. For $40 to $50 an hour, a speech therapist can help young urban professionals shed the regional accents they fear might stigmatize them locally and professionally."

"There's a stigma that if you have a New York or New Jersey accent, you're pushy. If you've got a Southern accent, you're dumb and slow," said Smeyak, whose rhetoric does not fall silkily on the ear.

And I can tell old Paul that if he thinks a Southern accent says that the speaker is dumb and slow, don't guess which shell the pea is under at the Yoknapatawpha County fair. If he really thinks Southern accents show slowness of wit, Br'er Rabbit must laugh all the way to the brier patch.

I think everyone will be all right. There won't be enough people to run and take Smeyak's course. If they did, our speech, the oral signature that identifies us, would all slather together into one sound, with no edges, no corners, no identifying marks. What an odd thing to aspire to. At our house we never thought that being like everyone else was desirable. And as I've told you before, at our house, we didn't have to worry.

I have a friend who is a cattle rancher in Deming, N.M. On the day of his daughter's wedding, he drove up to the cathedral, parked his pick-up smack-dab in front and said to me, "I like to not made this. I was up at the high ranch gethrin' cattle and the time got away."

"Gethrin' cattle," he said.

In Pendleton, Ore., they round up cattle. Each phrase is a good one. Each has the creak of a good saddle and tells exactly what the speaker means to say.

My treasured friend, KCBS newsman Jess Marlow, once went to a speech coach to eliminate what Jess believed were undesirable sounds of southern Illinois in his conversation.

The coach was a woman of unminced words. "Don't lose your regional accent. It's the only thing that gives your voice any character."

That quote isn't quite accurate because I wrote it on the back of an envelope that disappeared into the swamp of my desk. I'm happy to assure you, as you doubtless know, that Jess did not come out with a voice like everyone else. You can hear his voice on the television and say, "That's Jess."

A compatriot of Smeyak, a speech therapist, said: "You want a smooth, full-bodied, relaxed voice."

She sounds like she's talking about a nice little wine.

"That voice reassures people," she adds.

No, that voice doesn't reassure people. That is a voice one associates with aluminum siding salesmen or people who want to sell you one of those pretty green, corrugated plastic roofs for your patio.

I do not say you should whine, bellow, or simper. Just speak the speech I pray you, as that excellent spokesman William Shakespeare adjures us. Hang on to that speech that makes you part of your own tribe.

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