Published: Dec. 21, 2020

In 2020, when an inability to understand each other seems omnipresent among Americans, an upsurge in the capacity to speak clearly and audibly would be a wonderful way to add consequence to the First Amendment.

Here is a sound generalization about human nature: everyone wants to be heard and being heard requires much more than the emission of sound. Meanwhile, it is a sad feature of our time that so many people feel—often rightly—that their voices are not heard. So giving people the chance to cultivate the effective use of their voices should be a national priority.

Therefore, consider this unproven hypothesis: People who wear masks are participants in a first-of-its-kind nationwide project to enhance clarity of speech. (And I will just take this opportunity to say that pronouncing the plural of the word “mask” is itself a test of enunciation.)

If you head out into the world, wearing a mask, and you do not speak with care and precision, many people will just look blankly at you and say, “What? I didn’t catch that.” Thus, every conversation out in the world today presents an opportunity to cultivate good habits of enunciation, giving every consonant its deserved emphasis, speaking at a measured pace, and never letting the voice drop at the end of a sentence. And, since half of the face is hidden by a mask, we now have a reason to figure out how to say in words what we might otherwise convey with a smile or a frown or a quizzical twist to the corners of the mouth. In other words, a mask offers a chance to improve our performance in precise word choice as well as in enunciation.

And now for the next, really unprovable hypothesis: People who see masks as a constraint on their freedom are unknowingly forfeiting a unique opportunity to enhance their chance of being heard. To put that another way, when Covid-19 finally peters out, the non-mask-wearers may find themselves at a disadvantage, having passed up their opportunity to excel at enunciation, effective pacing, careful inflection, and livelier word choice.

In the European Enlightenment, a belief in the power that’s delivered by effective speaking led to an enthusiasm for training in elocution. In the nineteenth century, formal training in the effective use of the voice, the craft of articulation, and the accompaniment of gesture (which would be perfectly compatible with masks) became a central feature in the education of children.

The historic enthusiasm for elocution classes rested on a wondrous premise that it is a human right to speak and to be heard and understood. This premise is ready for revitalization and restoration in our time.


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