LANGUAGE: That’s ‘Chitter-lings’. Not ‘Chitluns’.
Richard Gregory has always had a thick Southern accent, but when his own wife chided, “You’re smarter than you sound,” he decided to act. Gregory, a 58-year-old real-estate broker from Memphis, enrolled in “Developing Your Speaking Voice,” a night class at the University of Memphis, where adults learn, among other things, how to neutralize their drawls and y’alls. The instructor, Michael Hall (author of “Twelve Secrets of a Great Voice”), works on eliminating Southernisms (“fixin’ to,” “ain’t got no”) and developing a stronger, clearer, more Midwestern speaking voice. The course, created in 1995, has been so popular that this year two additional classes have been added. Here’s a look.
7 P.M. — As they await Hall’s arrival, students exchange greetings outside Room 205 of the Patterson English Building, a nondescript brick-and-linoleum pile. Don Reaves, a Memphis native, extends a hand to a visitor and lets slip a cheerful “Howdy!” before he catches himself, shifts into a more regionally neutral accent and says, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
7:15 — Hall warms up the 17 students with “buzzy lip exercises,” designed to promote richer vocal tones. The group hums and wails like a chorus of air-raid sirens.
‘People think we’re all hillbillies, drinking moonshine, barefoot, smoking corncob pipes.’7:34 — The classroom resounds with synthetic cocktail party chitchat as the students, now in pairs, practice their conversation skills. (“Well, so, how long are you going to stay here?” one student carefully enunciates.) Discussing her goals, Jo Ann Bishop, a former country girl who now works the phones in customer service, says with a small-town drawl, “What I’d like is to not sound quite as Southern.”
“The voice colors everything,” notes Hall. “People think we’re all hillbillies, drinking moonshine, barefoot, smoking corncob pipes.” Bishop nods in silent agreement.
9:01 — For the night’s final exercise, Hall adds a few accessories to his navy pin-stripe suit: running shoes, a baseball cap, a towel and a whistle. It’s time for Mouth Aerobics, which help with enunciation.
“We have lazy lips, do we not?” Hall shouts. The class murmurs. “Mouth aerobics are a way for us to wake up that lazy mouth, those lazy lips!” Hall cranks up a pop tune and starts to jog in place. Suddenly the class members come to life, doing the Goldfish, sucking in their cheeks and puckering their lips. The room fills with the sounds of stomping feet and kissy-fishy noises backed by a bouncy beat. Hall works through exercises like Blowfish, Grandpa, Jaw Workout and Whoa, Nellie!
9:12 — Speaking well isn’t just about accents, Hall says, “but also about having the ability to speak confidently.” Fired up and sweaty after Mouth Aerobics, the students testify to this truth, shouting: “I’m the best! I can do it! I can do it!” How do they know they can do it?
“Because I’m the best!”