IT is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature.
To liken Best Society to a fraternity, with the avoidance of certain seemingly unimportant words as the sign of recognition, is not a fantastic simile. People of the fashionable world invariably use certain expressions and instinctively avoid others; therefore when a stranger uses an avoided one he proclaims that he does not belong, exactly as a pretended Freemason proclaims himself an outsider by giving the wrong gripor whatever it is by which Brother Masons recognize one another.
People of position are people of position the world overand by their speech are most readily known. Appearance on the other hand often passes muster. A show-girl may be lovely to look at as she stands in a seemingly unstudied position and in perfect clothes. But let her say My Gawd! or Wouldnt that jar you! and where is her loveliness then?
And yet, and this is the difficult part of the subject to make clear, the most vulgar slang like that quoted above, is scarcely worse than the attempted elegance which those unused to good society imagine to be the evidence of cultivation.
People who say I come, and I seen it, and I done it prove by their lack of grammar that they had little education in their youth. Unfortunate, very; but they may at the same time be brilliant, exceptional characters, loved by everyone who knows them, because they are what they seem and nothing else. But the caricature lady with the comic picture society manner who says Pardon me and talks of retiring, and residing, and desiring, and being acquainted with, and attending this and that with her escort, and curls her little finger over the handle of her teacup, and prates of culture, does not belong to Best Society, and never will! The offense of pretentiousness is committed oftener perhaps by women than by men, who are usually more natural and direct. A genuine, sincere, kindly American manor womancan go anywhere and be welcomed by everyone, provided of course, that he is a man of ability and intellect. One finds him all over the world, neither aping the manners of others nor treading on the sensibilities of those less fortunate than himself.
Occasionally too, there appears in Best Society a provincial in whose conversation is perceptible the influence of much reading of the Bible. Such are seldom if ever stilted or pompous or long-worded, but are invariably distinguished for the simplicity and dignity of their English.
There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the best sellers have no literary merit whatsoever.
To be able to separate best English from merely good English needs a long process of special education, but to recognize bad English one need merely skim through a page of a book, and if a single expression in the left-hand column following can be found (unless purposely quoted in illustration of vulgarity) it is quite certain that the author neither writes best English nor belongs to Best Society.
As examples of the very worst offenses that can be committed, the following are offered:
Pray, accept my thanks for the flattering ovation you have tendered me.
Yes, says the preposterous bride, I am the recipient of many admired and highly prized gifts.
Will you permit me to recall myself to you?
Many other expressions are provincial and one who seeks purity of speech should, if possible, avoid them, but as offenses they are minor:
Reckon, guess, calculate, or figure, meaning think.
Allow, meaning agree.
Folks, meaning family.
Cute, meaning pretty or winsome.
Well, I declare! Pon my word!
Box party, meaning sitting in a box at the theater.
Visiting with, meaning talking to.
There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago elegant was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery. Refined is on the verge. But the pariah of the language is culture! A word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation. To speak of the proper use of a finger bowl or the ability to introduce two people without a blunder as being evidence of culture of the highest degree is precisely as though evidence of highest education were claimed for who ever can do sums in addition, and read words of one syllable. Culture in its true meaning is widest possible education, plus especial refinement and taste.
The fact that slang is apt and forceful makes its use irresistibly tempting. Coarse or profane slang is beside the mark, but flivver, taxi, the movies, deadly (meaning dull), feeling fit, feeling blue, grafter, a fake, grouch, hunch and right o! are typical of words that it would make our spoken language stilted to exclude.
All colloquial expressions are little foxes that spoil the grapes of perfect diction, but they are very little foxes; it is the false elegance of stupid pretentiousness that is an annihilating blight which destroys root and vine.
In the choice of words, we can hardly find a better guide than the lines of Alexander Pope:
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Traits of pronunciation which are typical of whole sections of the country, or accents inherited from European parents must not be confused with crude pronunciations that have their origin in illiteracy. A gentleman of Irish blood may have a brogue as rich as plum cake, or anothers accent be soft Southern or flat New England, or rolling Western; and to each of these the utterance of the others may sound too flat, too soft, too harsh, too refined, or drawled, or clipped short, but not uncultivated.
To a New York ear, which ought to be fairly unbiased since the New York accent is a composite of all accents, English women chirrup and twitter. But the beautifully modulated, clear-clipped enunciation of a cultivated Englishman, one who can move his jaws and not swallow his words whole, comes as near to perfection in English as the diction of the Comédie Française comes to perfection in French.
The Boston accent is very crisp and in places suggestive of the best English but the vowels are so curiously flattened that the speech has a saltless effect. There is no rhyming word as flat as the way they say hearthaht. And bone and coatbawn, cawt, to rhyme with awe!
Then South, there is too much saltrather too much sugar. Every ones mouth seems full of it, with I turned to ah and every staccato a drawl. But the voices are full of sweetness and music unknown north of the Potomac.
The Pennsylvania burr is perhaps the mother of the Western one. It is strong enough to have mothered all the rs in the wor-r-rld! Philadelphias haow and caow for how and cow, and me for my is quite as bad as the water-r and thot of the West.
In best New York society there is perhaps a generally accepted pronunciation which seems chiefly an elimination of the accents of other sections. Probably that is what all people think of their own pronunciation. Or do they not know whether their inflection is right or wrong? Nothing should be simpler to determine. If they pronounce according to a standard dictionary, they are correct; if they dont, they have an accent or are ignorant; it is for them to determine which. Such differences as between saying wash or wawsh, advertisement or advertisement are of small importance. But no one who makes the least pretence of being a person of education says: kep for kept, genelmun or gempmun or laydee, vawde-vil, or eye-talian.
First of all, remember that while affectation is odious, crudeness must be overcome. A low voice is always pleasing, not whispered or murmured, but low in pitch. Do not talk at the top of your head, nor at the top of your lungs. Do not slur whole sentences together; on the other hand, do not pronounce as though each syllable were a separate tongue and lip exercise.
As a nation we do not talk so much too fast, as too loud. Tens of thousands twang and slur and shout and burr! Many of us drawl and many others of us race tongues and breath at full speed, but, as already said, the speed of our speech does not matter so much. Pitch of voice matters very much and so does pronunciationenunciation is not so essentialexcept to one who speaks in public.
There is no better way to cultivate a perfect pronunciation, apart from association with cultivated people, than by getting a small pronouncing dictionary of words in ordinary use, and reading it word by word, marking and studying any that you use frequently and mispronounce. When you know them, then read any book at random slowly aloud to yourself, very carefully pronouncing each word. The consciousness of this exercise may make you stilted in conversation at first, but by and by the sense or impulse to speak correctly will come.
This is a method that has been followed by many men handicapped in youth through lack of education, who have become prominent in public life, and by many women, who likewise handicapped by circumstances, have not only made possible a creditable position for themselves, but have then given their children the inestimable advantage of learning their mother tongue correctly at their mothers knee.