Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

No, Eliza, you didn’t “sy” that, you didn’t even “say” that.”

Riding the train to work one morning last week, I was thrilled to be able to sit in my favorite seat with the sun behind me so that I wouldn’t be blinded when it streamed through the windows and I could do the crossword puzzle and/or read in peace. It was school vacation week here in Massachusetts so the car was nearly empty. This is a rare treat that I savor when I get it, a reward for standing way too long on the platform as the system ran late yet again. Since my train ride to work is usually a cross between riding in a cattle car and a school bus, as this particular line serves two universities, two high schools and a few trade schools, I gather my rosebuds where I may. Unfortunately my joy was short lived when I was prevented from doing my puzzle by the pair seated next to me in the otherwise almost deserted car.

The two young women, in their early twenties, were chatting loudly as they got on the train, and continued as they plonked themselves in my vicinity. “What’s the big deal?” you ask. “A subway car is not a library.” No, it isn’t and I’m usually able to tune everyone else out either on my own or with the aid of my iPod. (On this particular morning I’d, unfortunately, forgotten my earbuds.) The more vocal of the two girls talked almost nonstop (I don’t think her companion had much of a chance to say anything), but the real problems were her voice and her speech patterns, both of which just plucked at my nerves.

I blame Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit. In 1982, Frank and his progeny recorded a “song” called “Valley Girl”, which skewered a certain class of affluent (and those who aspire to be) white females living in the San Fernando Valley outside of LA and introduced the world to “Valleyspeak”, a dialect so annoying that it was destined to become a phenomenon. Well, we’re thirty years on and like a monster in a bad horror film, it’s mutated as it moved east.

Girls from the same socio-economic class on this coast have their own version of “Valleyspeak”, except the “totally” and “I’m so sure” (punctuated with a hair flip and an eye roll) that was nonetheless clearly enunciated, has been replaced by a way of speaking from the back of one’s throat that sounds at once lazier and more pretentious. One true vestige of “Valleyspeak” does remain. It’s a word so insidious and so deeply imbedded in upper-middle class white Anglo-Saxon speech patterns that it’s even started to cross over to the male segment of that population, and that is the word “like”. I know you know what I’m talking about.

Sitting there, listening to their conversation, and trust me I had no choice, I could hear them even after I moved, it was like having a like hot poker like shoved like into my like brain…like.

The worst part? These two were kindergarten teachers! Stunned, I sat there, horrified. I can only imagine what my face looked like. My only thought, “what are they going to be teaching these children?!”

Elocution, which is the art of learning how to speak correctly by emphasizing grammar, pronunciation, enunciation, tone, and stress, as well as how to stand and how to gesture when giving a speech or just having a conversation, was once a part of a child’s curriculum. The lessons were encouraged by parents, especially immigrants, who wanted their children to have “better” opportunities than they had.

That word encompasses so many skills that can be used later in life, of which speaking correctly is only a part. So many people slouch their way through life. To be taught at a young age to stand up straight, shoulders back, stomach in, teaches a child not only to stand with confidence, but causes other people to have confidence in them. (It’s also much healthier, preventing a lot of future back and neck problems.)

By the time I got to high school, elocution per se had been reduced to mere “speech class”, but it might be the single best class I ever took. Learning how to stand, how to breathe, how to project my voice to the back of a room, and how to speak correctly, gave me the confidence I had lacked, including with my peers. The business of life may have beaten some of that confidence out of me, I’m naturally introverted anyway, but of my many phobias, public speaking, is not one of them. (I have ribbons to prove it.)

Elocution lessons (or a speech class) can imbue a child with a love of the spoken and written word. Knowing the value of words and loving to read, as we all know, opens up a world of possibilities for any child.

Taking elocution teaches a child to pronounce words correctly, to stress words to create different meanings to have a “more acceptable accent” (meaning not a regional accent that may cause problems in later life. I used to think Boston accents were cool when I spent my summers here and hated going back to the flat Midwestern twang of Indiana at the end of them. Now they’re like fingernails on a chalkboard.), as well as how to give a great speech. Frankly, it’s unbelievable that every parent doesn’t demand that some form of elocution be part of their child’s curriculum, but I suppose if schools are cutting things like art and music, which have more tangible and apparent benefits, being able to speak clearly, precisely and with feeling, just doesn’t make the cut.

It’s too bad, since having those abilities will give a child more possibilities with those skills than without. We all know what elocution and learning that the “rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, did for Eliza Doolittle. At the very least, the probability that future generations will drive some defenseless woman to inflict bodily harm on them or herself, decreases exponentially. And they’ll be able to do their puzzles in peace.

What do you think? Is civilization as we know it on the brink? What other signs of the coming apocalypse have you noticed (another pet peeve being table manners…)? Do you think these shortcomings will hurt our children’s ability to compete in the global economy?