Say What? Thoughts on the Absurdities of Speaking and Hearing

I have written about language and communication in previous posts on this blog, mainly because they interest me and because a good portion of my professional life has focused on these topics. The most popular blog post I have published to date is the “Southern Word of the Day” (there are five installments so far), which is a rip-off of Jeff Foxworthy’s hilarious observation of the thick southern accent. I have also taken a more serious approach of examining how sophisticated written language sets humans apart as a species in a post titled “What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage.”

We all know that language is sometimes inadequate in expressing thoughts and emotions, illustrated in the common expression that words fail us. At times, this shortcoming is terribly frustrating and even heartbreaking. We are also aware that our brains, along with the mouths and ears they control, are occasionally responsible for epic blunders that can lead to hurt feelings or even catastrophe. Fortunately, most of these miscommunications just end up being incredibly funny, at least after some time has passed.

Whispering
Whispering

The worn-out party icebreaker game of Pass the Message or Chinese Whisper illustrates how anyone can mishear a statement and pass it down a line of listeners, ending up with an absurd distortion of the original message. I think there is a funnier, real-life example. With the advent of the Internet it happens less often now, but who hasn’t had the experience of singing a song for years only to discover that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along? Perhaps the most memorable one is the line from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song that most people from my generation misheard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” My favorite personal experience goes back to my teenage years when my father was trying to acclimate himself to pop music. One day, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you heard that song where they keep singing ‘shake your fool head?’” Of course, he had been listening to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.”

It’s fascinating to me that human beings are so impressionable when it comes to language, especially with accents. Someone who was raised in Minnesota can spend a few years in Alabama, and upon returning to his home state, he finds that his old friends are recognizing a southern twang in his voice. However, sometimes that effect can be more immediate – much more immediate in the case of my mother. She went to the emergency room one time complaining with pains in her upper abdomen. The doctor on duty that evening was most likely from India, and his distinct accent was characteristic for someone raised in the subcontinent. He asked her, “Where does it HUT?” Pointing to her lower chest, my sweet mother replied with no intention whatsoever of mocking her physician, “It HUTS right here.”

When thinking about strong accents, I am always reminded of the nasal magnolia brogue of the Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. There are recordings of her reading from her own work and being interviewed on television, where we can hear her deep southern pronunciations in words like “wrytah” (writer) and “stawries” (stories). There is the now apocryphal though not unbelievable account of the occasion when O’Connor, as a student at the State University of Iowa, walked into the office of Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop. She introduced herself, but her strong accent forced Engle to ask her to repeat herself several times. In a state of exasperation, he finally told her to write down what she was saying so he could understand her. Supposedly, she wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” Apparently, this was her way of communicating to Engle her desire to give up pursuing a journalism degree and to be admitted into the Workshop.

Anecdotes of the breakdown of language are probably endless, but I will close these comical contemplations with one of my favorites of all time. Noisy conditions, bad phone connections, and poor hearing are just a few contributing factors to misunderstandings and even the dissemination of inaccurate information. However, sometimes communication is sabotaged by inexperience, carelessness, or downright stupidity. I won’t attempt to classify one of the best examples of being misunderstood that ever happened to me. I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. I was being interviewed over the phone once by a reporter from a local small-town newspaper. At the end of our conversation, the young woman asked me for my title, to which I replied, “I am the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” The story in the newspaper the following week identified me as “the executive decorator of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” Some of my friends thought I had gotten a promotion.

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