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February 8, 2011

"The King's Speech" holds important messages


By Sugwon Kang

---- — I have always thought that Americans had a role model in the British when it came to writing speaking good English. One American academic editor once said to me, supporting my view, that the Brits know how to use the language, adding, "After all, it's their language, isn't it?" Not only do the British write good English, less willing to take liberties with syntax grammar, perhaps, than Americans, they seem fascinated with the challenge of delivery. Somehow, they seem a nation of performers.

Where most Americans would speak to you in a conversational tone, some Britons will gladly give a speech, if you will oblige them by being their audience. "Tell me," they'll say. Or, when the going is not entirely to their liking, they might resort to their tried--true "My dear fellow" routine. "The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan said in his influential 1960s work "Understanding Media."

In the U.K., delivery can sometimes take on a life of its own, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the message on an equal footing, not unlike McLuhan's medium. Watch the House of Commons weekly "Question Time," during which the members of Parliament get to ask questions of the prime minister his Cabinet.

These sessions can get rowdy at times as members of Her Majesty's Government the Loyal Opposition take turns to deliver their onslaughts. And the members seem to enjoy these attacks, even when they are at the receiving end, so long as they are delivered in good humor. Imagine the challenge of a speech impediment for an aspiring politician in a culture that puts such a premium on the art of delivery. Imagine a young Winston Churchill, an upstart war correspondent trying to elude the authorities, as he did in South Africa during the Boer War. Signs went up urging people to turn in a chubby young English male who pronounced "s" as "sh."

As Eliza Doolittle was forced to repeat "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" in George Bernard Shaw's movie version of his play "Pygmalion," to get her vowels right, so the young Churchill, in real life, had to practice his dreaded consonant by repeating "The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight."

The American Stuttering Foundation has concluded that Mr. Churchill's problem was more than a failure to grow out of a childhood lisp, however; it has determined that Churchill's affliction was a stutter, or a stammer. Of course, that's what King George VI had, as we see in "The King's Speech," which has won 12 Oscar nominations a bunch of awards. Churchill did acknowledge in public that he had a speaking problem, only to insist that his "impediment" was "no hindrance."

That is to say, it would not affect his performance of his public duties. Or, to put it yet another way, his impediment wasn't much of an impediment. We have always known from firsthand accounts how hard Churchill practiced his speeches at home before delivering them in Parliament. What was not known until years after his death is that he had no choice.

For Churchill, speaking in the Commons was like acting, terrifying no less than exhilarating. He was practicing stagecraft with a view to showing his audience that he had a certain style of delivery, complete with strategic pauses unconventional cadences. With that he was able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage; what would have seemed peculiar with any other mortal was made a trademark.

Apparently, Moses had a serious speech problem, too. When he told God that he wasn't up to the task of persuading the Pharaoh to let his people go, he was told that he'd do fine, for his big brother Aaron would go with him. Churchill had no such support; he had to battle it out all alone, employing every trick of the trade known to him.

"The King's Speech" has a scene where Churchill comforts his tongue-tied young monarch, telling him that he knew all about the affliction that the king should never let it discourage him. In the family quarters the king is shown watching the broadcast of one of Hitler's mesmerizing speeches with the royal children.

The older daughter, who would later succeed him as Queen Elizabeth II, asks her papa, "What is he saying?" Papa didn't know. But he remarks, whatever it was Hitler was saying, he was, obviously, very good at what he was doing! I rather think that "The King's Speech" got rave reviews not only because of the substantial artistic merit the critics saw in it but also because of the message that came with it; it was one to which a great many viewers could relate, regardless of any personal encounter with the affliction.

According to one estimate, less than 10 percent of the American people are really able to speak without an impediment of some sort, whether it is a clinical disorder or a simple inability to make the fullest use of the vocal system. Fully 1 percent of the adult population suffers from some degree of stuttering, so we are told. The message I got from "The King's Speech" was twofold. First, "Don't be afraid. Deal with your impediment by understanding it. Even if you can't cure it, you can treat it if you're willing to give it a try."

And, "There's no shame in having a medical condition, whatever its cause. Remember, too, that you're not alone." The English monarch never really conquers his impediment in the film in the sense of eradicating its cause.

What the film shows is that the reluctant monarch, who had stepped to the throne vacated by his elder sibling, learned to deal with his affliction by submitting to a commoner expert who didn't even have a license to practice speech therapy. By that leap of faith the king was able to improve his speech go on with his life doing what he had been ordained to do.

A speech impediment can be treated, where it cannot be cured. The king had not known that; now he did. How fitting, then, that this inspiring tale about speech disorder should have come from a nation known for its love of theater its devotion to the art of speaking. Sugwon Kang is a professor emeritus of political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta.