American Speaking and Habitus vs. British Speaking and Habitus

Posted on April 7, 2009 by


Via the Hacker News Y Combinator grapevine, I chanced upon an interesting way of enhancing public speaking in English. By “enhancing”, the writer means enhancing the fluidity of speech and eliminating the intermittent “umms…ahhhss” that seem to pepper the American speech pattern.

The article and the method is written by a 1960s-era UCLA grad/Peace Corps member on ACM Ubiquity.

Listening to the BBC, I heard cashiers, janitors, parking attendants, etc., speaking as if they had graduated from prestigious universities. By contrast, listening to Voice of America, I heard people at the top of the educational and social ladder speaking as if they had never even graduated from primary school.

I’ve wondered this for a while…why do British people sound so fluid with their language? It’s like they never really pause or have fillers like umm and hmm, but then again, I don’t have too much experience myself listening to them speak in everyday, non-popular contexts except via BBC News on KCET, Bend It Like Beckham, the Ouch Charlie video, and How to give a Man Hug.

The explanation is as follows:

…After a few weeks I came to a startling conclusion. The apparent superiority of the Brits had nothing to do with either intelligence or education. It was in fact physical.

…If you pay attention, you will notice that the British, particularly the English, tend to form their words on their lips, while Americans form them in the throat.

…I believe that forming words in the throat puts abnormal strain on the larynx, which is why Americans so often tend to stumble over their words. They frequently interrupt their speech with interjections such as “um”, “ah”, and other irritating hesitations. This is not because they don’t know what to say next. It’s because they are giving their vocal cords a momentary chance to recover.

A rather bold assertion, saying that the reason Americans are kind of slow and less fluid with their language not because they’re stupid, but because the way they use their speech actually taxes their vocal chords. How Americans produce that speech and how that taxes the larynx are questions for phonologists and biophysicists.

* * * * *

Assuming that these observations are correct, what I’m interested in is the historical and socio-environmental context that has forced Americans to speak en masse with their throats as opposed to retaining the British method of lip-speaking.

I also wonder how this way of speaking has had influence on habitus, that is, our perceptions, our thought patterns, and ensuing behavior. Maybe our slowness and our speech fillers are a consequence of culturally valuing the non-repetitiveness of things. Maybe it matches up with the cultural stereotypes of us being overly materialistic, engaging in all kinds of objectification, glorifying violence.

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