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What is Meant by Elocution

The literal meaning of elocution is 'to speak out.' Dictionaries and writers on rhetoric define elocution as that pronunciation which is given to words when they are arranged into sentences and form discourse. This conception of it confines it to articulation, whereas elocution includes accurateness, distinctness and natural modulation of words, in private as well as public life. Modulation comes by emotion, but accuracy and distinctness of speech come by art.

The object of public speech is persuasion. It ought to be the object of private speech also. To persuade by public speech requires a voice articulate and audible. That is the beginning of practical influence in elocution. A man will speak all his life and never notice that words are merely sounds. Accustomed to see words in books, he forgets, or does not realize, that words are merely sounds to the hearer. The difference between the foreign language and the English consists only in a different set of sounds. A man wonders, when he stands by a telegraph clerk, how he turns ticks into words, and does not know that the ticks are sounds of words made by a machine. Chicago is a fine Indian word, sounding as though written She-car-go. If anyone should pronounce it Chick-a-go, nobody would understand what place he meant; or should he at dinner, wanting tomatoes, pronounce the word tom-a-toes, the waiter would not know what to give him.

A speaker must use his ears to learn what sounds he should make, and be alert with his ears to note what sounds others make. People will listen to one who can be easily heard. The clear, strong speaking man can command a hearing. He who fills the ear carries weight. Few have minds to fill—all have ears.

A letter addressed as follows was a puzzle to the best readers in the Post Office for some time:—'Serum Fridavi, Londres;' when, by reading the address aloud, with the French as well as the English sound of the vowels, it was found to be—' Sir Humphry Davy, London.'
At an Anti-Corn Law meeting held in Glasgow, in 1845, I sat at half-distance from the platform. As my name had been given to the Lord Provost, I was uncertain whether I should not be called upon to take part in the proceedings, and therefore was anxious to hear all that was said. It was at this time that I first felt perfectly the annoyance of indistinct speaking. At the Newhall Hill meetings in Birmingham I had been accustomed to hear Warwickshire orators vocal, but in Glasgow I found they only spoke, and spoke as though they were paid for the sound they made, and did not get a good price for it. At length the Rev. Dr. King arose, who spoke with strong deliberateness—words well conceived and well delivered. The syllables fell on the ear like the steady tolling of a bell. His voice was the relief of the night. Whenever I go to a public meeting, I pray that one of the speakers may have Dr. King's quality of utterance.

There are two ways of speaking—one from the throat, the other from the chest. The chest voice is louder, and lasts longer. The stage voice is a chest voice, whose uniformity and peculiarity everyone knows. Both actors and singers inflate the chest to deepen, strengthen, and prolong the tones.

Most grammars give a list of about twenty-two words beginning with h in which the h is not sounded. These words have to be spoken as though they began with a vowel. All other words beginning with h must have that letter distinctly heard. In illustration of this neglect of aspiration where proper, teachers of elocution say that if the Indian swallows the sword we (h)eat the poker. Care in speaking the aspirate words, and in not aspirating words where the h is silent, nor in words beginning with a vowel, will disappoint novelists who, unable to delineate character in which the person is identified by his mind, invent peculiarities of manners or of speech. Writers of small knowledge delight to sneer at those who have less, and write the names of Harriet and Harry without the H. Rapid utterance and a slovenliness of speaking, habitual with those who have not thought upon the intention of speech, make it difficult to them to aspirate when they should and avoid doing it when they should not. To speak the aspirate at will, or to omit it at will, comes easy to those who speak deliberately. Vowels should have a bold open tone—a slight, short, mincing pronunciation of the unaccented vowels is a fault to be well avoided.

Audibility depends chiefly on articulation, and articulation depends much on the distinctness with which we hear the final consonants. They need attention as well as vowels.

W. J. Fox, the great preacher of South Place Chapel, whose voice was neither loud nor strong, was heard in every part, and all over Covent Garden Theatre, when he made Anti-Corn Law orations there, by the clearness with which he pronounced the final consonants of the words he spoke.

I must myself have failed in this respect when speaking at the Walsall Literary Institute, and comparing the speaking of Pitt and Mr. Chamberlain as having the same quality of 'overcomingness.' The report in the papers represented me as charging Mr. Chamberlain with 'over-cunningness,' which was a sinister imputation neither in my mind nor on my tongue—but the error was owing to defect of the reporter's ear, or more probably to indistinctness in my pronunciation.

Aspiration is pronouncing the h with a full breath.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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