Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Success through Language!

Remove Obstacles in Your Path
Gain Confidence, Respect, and Poise
in just 15 minutes a day!

Who could resist such an appeal? I heard a radio ad this morning from Verbal Advantage touting their method of improving one's vocabulary and as this quotation from their web site says they offer an increase in confidence, respect, and poise simply by increasing your vocabulary.

There is no question that when relatively uneducated people unexpectedly find a microphone in front of their faces and start trying to answer questions from a television reporter they seem to have this unavoidable urge to elevate their verbal style and reach for words that they don't really understand. It can get pretty ugly. Verbal Advantage has the answer for them it seems. If they will just learn more words confidence, respect, and poise will be theirs.

When I heard this radio ad, I thought immediately of John Braine's novel, "Room at the Top," which was published in 1957. Just two years later, it was turned into a very successful movie with Lawrence Harvey and Simone Signoret (who won an Oscar). In this book/movie, the Harvey character is intent on ridding himself of the trappings of his working class background and, among other things, devoted himself to replacing his working class dialect with some more respectable version of British English. Interestingly, nothing I have found while Googling and Yahooing this novel/book mentions this character's work on improving his speech. But that is what most deeply impressed me, perhaps foreshadowing my gradual move into linguistics.

Back to Verbal Advantage. There is no question that just as how you talk reflects who you are -- where you are from, your social class, your gender, your age, etc. -- how you talk will determine what sorts of work you will likely get. The psycholinguist Bill Labov did a famous study of "r"-dropping in New York in which he surveyed how sales clerks pronounced "fourth floor" at three department stores, Sax's, Macy's, and a now defunct store that catered to the working class. In New York (unlike Boston), dropping the "r's" of words like these is stigmatized and he hypothesized that clerks in an upper crust store like Sax Fifth Avenue would on balance drop fewer "r's" than those in Macy's, and clerks in the now defunct store would drop the greatest number of "r's." His method was to find out what was on the fourth floor and ask clerks where that item could be found. As expected, he found that just as these stores were socially stratified in regard to the kinds of customers they were attempting to reach, they were stratified lingusitically. In Macy's he also found stratification between those who clerked in "better women's clothing" and those who worked in the bargain basement.

There are two explanations for why Labov might have gotten the results he got. One is that how people talked during interviews determined where they would get work. The other is that how people talked reflected the kinds of customers they served. As Labov notes, the sociologist, C. Wright Mills claimed that "sales girls" (a pre-PC characterization) bask in the reflected esteem of the people they serve and will tend to emulate them at least in superficial ways (a rough characterization). I suspect that both factors are at work.

The lesson for those interested in Verbal Advantage is that simply learning more words won't win you "Confidence, Respect, and Poise" unless you already speak Standard English and you learn the right words. I am curious (but not curious enough to buy their materials) what sort of vocabulary these people teach. Perhaps they learn fancy words like "deconstruction" and other verbal toys of the literary elite. That will make them a hit at the neighborhood tavern.

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Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Have you read David Sacks' chapter on R in Letter Perfect. He talks about the two major accent groups of English - the rhotic vs nonrhotic.

I have started a blog on writing systems and keyboarding.


10:47 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Verbal Advantage is so damn good at teaching you to get what you want through better diction and vocabulary, then why in Heaven's name did you find it so easy to resist their sales pitch? (Heh.)

3:33 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

It was tough to resist but I came through.

I still want to know what words they teach people.

9:10 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Perhaps they learn fancy words like "deconstruction" and other verbal toys of the literary elite. That will make them a hit at the neighborhood tavern."

"postmodern" would be another word to carry to the tavern, and see what it gets you when you apply it to an aging barmaid.

3:06 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

She might not take well to the use of "deconstruction" either.

I have worried about "postmodern" for as long as I have be familiar with the word (I wouldn't touch the concept on dare). Normally -- no always -- "modern" refers to something recent. These literary nitwits have decided in their linguistic arrogance to locate it at a specific period of time. Can any of them wonder why educated people won't pass them on the same side of the intellectual street?

5:19 PM

Blogger isabelita said...

Hah! You fellows no doubt see youselves as "nuanced" - this bit about the poor old barmaid is sheer piggery!
Sheesh - Mrs. Perils

11:06 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr.Elster avoided the vapid word deconstruction in his 24 cd compilation. There is a book out now called Verbal Advantage that sells for a mere 11.25 at overstock.com. I think I will purchase it to refresh my memory now and again on the After having listened to the entire program at least twice my poise is at an all time high. The program is actually fun to listen to even if the many of the words will only be encountered on one of the standardized tests we face.

7:39 PM


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