Prepping: Your “Speech Weapon”

I recently sat down for a few minutes with a young man – just going off to college for his medical profession specialty –  to coach him a bit on how to succeed in the world of higher ed.  Two things were the focus of our talk:  Speech and the “mechanicals.”  Those are the “business points” of going to school.

Great young man, too (and a relative, BTW)  – high school football star – but his dream of going to the NFL didn’t happen for two reasons:  First?  Well, his coach at his school played other players ahead of him…so he wasn’t seen as much after his junior year in high school where his numbers were excellent.  The other reason (more an excuse not to play him, the way I figure it) was a minor injury, long-ago healed.

Caring breaks out at the damnedest times, times in the South, huh?  But this is Friday Night Football land.

It was a great opportunity to help a young person – because he has medical rock star potential.  What he DIDN’T have -until last weekend –  was great spoken language skills.

Life has burdened him with a very heavy dose of Ebonics.  

As luck would have it, since I’ve worked in black broadcasting as well as training hundreds of broadcasters,  his speech problem was an easy fix. It will take practice, of course.  But fixable?  Hell-yeah.

This is one of those “inside secrets” of higher ed that should be more widely available for one simple reason:  What we say implies our education and capabilities-levels more than  anything else we do.

OK:  Short course – Removing Ebonics

When I  ran a broadcasting college, I helped dozens upon dozens of young broadcasters to lose their “street accents.”  My contract lecturer on speech pathology (Jan whose last named I can’t remember for the life of me)  taught every class these basics.  And, she  schooled me well in the “bullet points” that are easy to remember and pass on.  It takes just a few minutes.  So let’s do this.

First, a word about speech pathology:  Few “break-it down” far enough in public schools to make Ebonics “correctable” to “standard American English.”  But it’s a process.  And as I tell everyone, there’s damn little that hasn’t been done before.  To succeed at anything, just find some else who’s done something and copy their moves.  Simple.

Ebonics may be characterized as “mumble-mouth” or “lazy-mouth.”  No, that’s not racist or a reflection on the person.  It’s a mechanical description of the speech pattern. Speech is a habit.  A huge portion of implied educational achievement comes simply in one’s clarity of articulation.

Ebonics’ main feature is lazily-dropping the last consonant sound of words.

Try reading the following out loud and you will hear it distinctly:

Lass nigh we wen ow…”

Next, read the same meaning out loud for comparison.

“Last night we went out.”

See?  All this young man had to do was add the last letter which Ebonics habitually drops.  Now, he’s instantly more understandable by people outside his social group.  That’s Power 101.

Ebonics, interestingly, shares some components with Northeast American-English.  Confusion of the ending R sound with the Ah sound, for example.

If you just heard the word “Lettah” would could be dealing with a down-easter accent from the coast of Maine OR Ebonics.  Much is revealed by speech – right down to region – and how we speak!  Down-easters tell is turning one-syllable words into two”  Such that “There” becomes “They-ah.”  Welcome to Kennedy-speak.

Maine ham radio operators use “Antenna tuna’s.”  So do hams in the south.  The rest of us use tuner‘s.

With the addition of last letters, about half the young man’s  “street” speech disappeared.  It was amazing.  For a flash, I thought I caught that “No shit?  This easy?” look.  Way cool.

The second major Ebonics “tell” is in confusion between the “D” sound and the “TH.”  As in…

Diss tie we wen to da stoe”

OK…apply the “D” confusion “fix” and the “last letter” fix together:

This time we went to the store.”

A minor note – depending on which “street” in which city:  Middle of word “R” sounds can also be problematic:  “Impoten…” versus “Important.”

This speech pattern  is reinforced because in many minority communities, everyone in a particular social strata tends to speak the same.  Unless someone explains Ebonics’ sounds and corrections, speech gets wrapped around the axle of cultural stress and doesn’t get resolved.  You tend to “speak what you hear.”

Ever listen to Dr. Ben Carson?  Damn well-spoken man.  My point.

There’s an old joke about the US and (formerly) Great Britain being:  “Two countries, divided by a common language.”  Don’t look now, but that also applies inside our own borders and within our cities, too – regardless of size.

There’s more to, it, of course.

There’s a regionalism that’s mainly Caribbean:  This is what I describe as the “Eye-lan taw”  vowel-sound confusionEye-lan Taw’s main variances sound like this  (go ahead and read ’em aloud!):

First is the SK versus KS confusion.  Written phonetically:

Lemme axe  (aks) you…”  versus “Let me ask you…”

The Caribbean variant of the D-Th confusion is often the dropping of the hard “H” in words where the hard Th sound begins the word.  Again, try reading this out loud…

Here’s dee ting…I taught you was derr…”

Instead of “Here’s the thing…I thought you were there…:”

The hard H sound can  also “go missing” at the beginning of words, as well:

“Ay derr…”  instead of “Hey there…”

Depending on island, the harder (but not long) A sounds can also be excessively softened:

Ay mahn…” instead of “Hey man…”

Or, maybe  “Dee bahnk”  instead of the more (harder)  sibilant “The Bank.”

Lose the residual  was/were transpositions – an artifact of unequal educational opportunity, I expect…and presto:  Ebonics can be turned into six-year advanced degree-sounding speech in a simple, short lesson that anyone can learn in just a few minutes.

In no time, my young college-bound relative just gained some important power to better present himself and his ideas to classmates and teachers.  People judge others on what they say. That includes the how they say it.”

Oh, and yeah, it will almost certainly land this young man a better job because it will relieve any future employer’s concerns later-on in his career about working with the public.  Given other factors being anywhere near equal, the articulating person will ALWAYS get hired ahead of the less well-spoken.

And that’s where the rubber meets the road:  At the teller window at the bank!

If you know anyone who could benefit from knowing how to “change out of Ebonics into “six-years of college- speak” at will, please  pass this along.

One of the greatest shortfalls of humans is they then to judge one another on their differences and not their similarities.

Un yaw, mahn, dat’s da fuggin’ trute on dah stree.  Axe me how I know’ed…”

BTW: A couple of personal background notes that helped me, as a FOWM (fat, old white man), be so “dialed-in” to people’s speech in general and Ebonics in particular:

When I was in high school in 1966 and 1967 senior year, every afternoon at 2:15, a sky-blue 1964 GTO with red-stripe Tiger-Paw tires and the Bobcat Valve and cam option on top of the 389-Tri-Power V-8 and 4-speed would show up in front of school.  The driver was “Tom Cross, the Boss with the Hot Sauce” (go ahead, listen to his speech on that aircheck from KGFJ).  He’d pick up his transmitter engineer (me)  for read the meters and such during his afternoon show on “KYAC the Soul of the City.”  1460 AM and a Collins 21-EM transmitter on a three-tower array.

It was a 45-minute drive out to Kirkland, Washington from the Central Area of Seattle.  We talked of many things including great speech for broadcasting.  Tom, had come to KYAC from Rockford Illinois.  He began to teach me a bit about Ebonics – and how he lost it – in an encyclopedic way.  His success and speech in Los Angeles was brilliant.

Another beautifully-articulated voice I worked with was Sonny Buxton.  He was hosting the weekend “Jazz Unlimited” show at KYAC.  After Seattle, Sonny was for years – the co-owner of Pearls for jazz in San Francisco. Sonny is still heard on the Bay Area’s Jazz 91, KCSM.

I owe these gentlemen a huge debt in my life, along with the station’s then chief engineer, the late Lloyd Jones (Quincy Jone’s brother).  Not just for the best music education in the world, but also many core lessons of how life that work on “either side of the tracks.”  Amazing people all.  It was an honor to have worked with them.

“Write when you get rich,

16 thoughts on “Prepping: Your “Speech Weapon””

  1. Glad he aspires to greater opportunities. We need more people feeling empowered ( vs. victims). Cool that you helped show him the way.

    While in college, let him know (or reinforce) that his results will stem from his behaviors and his behaviors will reflect his beliefs … i.e. beliefs rooted in what is true will yield good results. So worthwhile to try to seek what is true!

    Carson’s ability to solve the problem to keep conjoined twins from bleeding out is a lesson on intuitive thinking. And successfully performing so many op’s …An incredible role model. People like Carson make the victimhood peddlars wake up in a cold sweat.

  2. Thanks George, for expressing my own personal thoughts regarding regional accents. They can be used locally, but are generally a negative in the business and much of the social world. My best friend and former lover has the most expressive voice in perfect standard American English, yet she was born in lower Manhattan and has only a four year degree. Her speaking ability has helped her far more than she will admit.

    I have a different problem that you may have insight in to. I speak without any regional accent, yet my friend constantly tells me that I’m using the wrong tone of voice and it sends the wrong message. At least she’s blunt to a fault! I have no idea how to change this and don’t even know if speech pathologists can train this tonality to be more effective. By choice, I’d have Art Bell’s voice, yet I have no idea how to practice the tonal thing or even understand where the target is. I only know that his voice moved many people and that’s a large part of communication. I’ve had a similar problem trying to actually pronounce Chinese with the proper tones. It’s as if part of my brain hasn’t figured out how to do so. Since tone and body language(another problem) are so important to interpersonal communication, is there a recipe for improving these that you’re aware of? BTW, regarding standard speech, I credit phonics as a learning method for reading, and then reading constantly as a kid. Spelling drills help too. Sight reading never systematizes the link of reading to speech. This is a problem in English(IMHO), and very much a problem in Chinese, where the same characters may be totally unintelligible across regions when spoken.

    • Let me write up Part 2 of Your Speech Weapon It will show up as a Coping piece.
      Great suggestion

    • NM MIKE. Maybe if you talked louder with more force while smiling that would help. I find smiling while talking gives you an up beat tone.

      As an Insurance Wholesaler, I talked to insurance agents face to face or on the phone all day motivating them to sell more. I always smiled while talking because it gave my voice confidence & a caring attitude.

      • Good ideas. I’ve learned to talk much louder than I did as a kid, and it helps. It’s actually hard to remember to smile when thinking of a serious answer. Worth doing though.


      This website has resources for developing emotional intelligence, which seems to be your root issue.

      Also, if you don’t like that avenue of inquiry, join a local theatre group, or take acting classes, in order to get feedback on putting feeling into your voice appropriately.

      Lastly, simply find some emotionally evocative passages and record yourself reading them aloud.
      — Start with neutral — no thought to emotional coloring.
      — Then try to bring up the feelings stirred by the passage and read it aloud again
      — Build on the emotion, add more, think about pauses and pacing and repeat
      — Now listen to all three versions. Can you hear a difference? Have the Ex listen to the recordings. Can she hear a difference?

      So these are some places to start. It is probably worth your while to explore changing your voice. Might just change your life.

      Last thoughts — hate to ask this but here goes — do you have any:

      — hearing loss?
      — Aspergers/Autism Spectrum Disorder?
      — childhood trauma/abuse where you felt you could not reveal your emotions AT ALL? (I had something similar happen to me).

      • Wow! Thanks for the link and the exercises. I’ll be looking into these.

        Am I that transparent? I don’t have hearing loss, other than what’s normal for being George’s age and working with power equipment. Two out of three are bad enough, I suppose. Handicaps are never an excuse for failing though.

  3. That was sooo racist, indeud ‘-); I was always taught that there were no differences?! I stand corrected.

  4. The accent that grabbed my ear and twisted my brain…….

    I HAD to ask where the guy was from. I could not pay attention to what he was saying because my brain was working so hard to ‘translate’ the unknown accent.

    Born in South Africa and moved to Australia as a teenager.

    And speaking to Ebonics….

    Once worked with a pleasant young man who was so mumble-mouthed, and consonant-dropping that he would speak a sentence, and I would have NO CLUE what he just said. After a two-four second delay I would suddenly re-hear the sentence in my head with correct pronunciation and then respond to him.

    These incidents stand out for me because normally both my listening/understanding and my reading/understanding speed are very fast.

    • I get like that so I totally understand.. A million thoughts running through my mind at one time..short change subject etc.
      Most of the time those that know me tell me to digest it a few days then give them a comment to the subject of the conversation. My first answer is always spontaneous and pre judgemental.

  5. My speech and spelling has always been bad. Sentence structure..a nightmare..dress for success.. Well I wouldn’t ever slap a noose around my neck for work..I think that image does make a difference in how far you’ll succeed. Look at my financial success ratio in comparison. I actually feel like I was my life I find that I dont require gold faucets or a car that costs a years wages to drive to The store.
    It does surprise me how an image will reflect in someone’s in a persons abilities. Once upon a time there was a class I wanted to attend in college the big drawback was It was only offered to junior class schedule. So I had to get credit for the two years .. My only solution was challenge the basic courses. I went in to GWU and asked..the professor tried desperately to talk me out of it..coming right out and saying your not smart enough..and I should just not think about it. (Really irritated me) he finally gave in and I took the tests..a couple weeks later I went in the professor had this odd look on his face because he pre judged me by my appearance and speech pattern..( ize ain’t talk like some edjimacated man) and said..have you ever considered going to school to get a degree.. Yup but I didn’t have the cash to and a family to support. I did get to take the course I wanted to attend..luckily today anyone can take any course you want without credit towards a degree for free.. If you want the sheet of paper you pay.

  6. Speaking of speech and word association..I’ve always had t-shirts with puzzle meanings.. No one and I mean no one ever catches it till yesterday..I was in Wal-Mart shopping and this cute young woman was walking by.. She stopped..her head came up and she looked at the t-shirt then looked at me smiled and winked then went by chuckling lol.. That is an old shirt.. Like poits gathering lol lol

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