Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday, 25 January 2013

"Speak clearly, if you speak at all...."

After chronicling Miss Safe's untimely dip in a Birmingham canal (previous post), I happened to catch a television interview in which she described the incident.

Watching it, I was struck by the fact that, though she is clearly articulate and intelligent, her speaking voice was surprisingly flat, nasal and undeveloped. The same, of course, applies to much of the population these days - since public recital fell out of fashion in most of Britain's classrooms, there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of speech in schools - but one might have thought a radio newsreader would prove an exception.

Still, I shouldn't be too surprised. It's something I've noticed on several recent car journeys; local news and traffic reports suggest that a good, clear speaking voice is fairly low on the list of priorities when choosing radio presenters.

I can see why it might not be deemed important for the actual entertainment broadcasts; Jeremy Clarkson once memorably described local radio DJs as sounding 'as if they're talking to you while someone is pushing Harpic up their nostrils with an electric toothbrush' in the hope of sounding wacky enough to attract the attention of any TV talent scouts who might be listening.

But the news and travel, the bit that's important to the thousands of motorists passing through the area, that should surely be delivered, if not in flawless Received Pronunciation, at least clearly enough to be understood by drivers over the noise of a car.

Instead, traffic announcers slur their words and mumble their script or - in the recent case of one female on a London station - giggle uncontrollably about something the DJ said and thus render half the information utterly incomprehensible; annoying if you're listening at home or in the office but downright infuriating if those details included the cause of the tailback you've just joined on the M25.

One traffic news presenter employed by an East Anglian radio station even has a definite lisp. While I'm all in favour of equal opportunities, I cannot imagine any circumstances that would make him the best possible candidate to read out information concerning Ipswich, Felixstowe and southern Suffolk, particularly in a context where road safety is concerned.

Perhaps it is all about equal opportunities; maybe these are the first tiny steps towards the dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 'Harrison Bergeron', set in a world where the US Handicapper General ensures that everyone is 'equal every which way':
The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn't clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen."
Or perhaps we have reached a point beyond irony, where radio presenters are chosen on the basis of how good they will look in the station's publicity shots and web pages rather than on the sound that will go out over the airwaves. Even on the outer fringes of celebrity, image, these days, is all.

Of course, I could be wrong; Miss Safe may merely have been developing a cold following her involuntary immersion or the studio microphones may have malfunctioned, but it does seem to me that the dulcet tones of the BBC's Charlotte Green and her like are gradually being replaced across the board by voices that lack clarity, resonance and that indefinable quality that makes them pleasant to hear and easy to understand.


  1. Glad to read this. We often wonder why we have trouble picking up the speech on many programmes when we can pick out individual instruments in an orchestra without problems.

  2. Now Macheath, tell me, how can you tell "if she is clearly articulate and intelligent", if "her speaking voice was surprisingly flat, nasal and undeveloped ?"

    I ask merely for information. ;-)

  3. Demetrius, I suspect clear speech was a political casualty of educational policies aimed at destroying the bourgeois hegemony.

    Meanwhile, talking of orchestral instruments, have you seen this chap's work? It's a great antidote to the stresses of modern life:


    JH, good question. It's a case of content vs style; the words demonstrated a self-deprecating sense of humour and wry amusement but they were delivered in an untrained voice with little resonance or modulation.

  4. I agree - it's something I've noticed too.

    Maybe "clarity, resonance and that indefinable quality that makes them pleasant to hear and easy to understand" sounds posh these days and therefore unacceptable.

  5. AKH, you're right; as well as affecting education, that over-simplification would fit well with what I imagine to be the prevailing ethos of radio.

  6. XX downright infuriating if those details included the cause of the tailback you've just joined on the M25. XX

    Their is a tail back, period.

    What sort of rubber-necker "needs" to know WHY?

  7. A bugbear of mine at my local Tube station is why oh why do they allow the worker with the strongest, most impenetrable African accent to make the announcements?

    Thank god for smartphones and Twitter or I'd never understand why my train is late!

  8. FT, perhaps I should have specified how far ahead the cause is - if your arrival time is an issue (and the M25 serves several airports), it helps to know in advance whether you are likely to be crawling along at snail's pace for one mile or twenty.

    Julia, who, in today's Britain, would dare suggest rejecting an interview candidate for such a post on the grounds of accent - whether African, Scouse or 'Sarf London'?

    The latter, incidentally, has become so incomprehensible to outsiders that some vox pop interview with teenagers now carry subtitles; if they are genuinely incapable of making themselves understood, these youngsters are effectively barred from ever finding employment outside their social and geographical milieu.

  9. XX Macheath said...
    it helps to know in advance whether you are likely to be crawling along at snail's pace for one mile or twenty.XX

    I will give you that.