I’ve been thinking a lot this fall about the roots of this work.


Unitarian Universalists like to talk about roots and wings. Roots ground you, connect you to where you’ve come from and what’s important. They form your support system and give you structure, organization, stability, and sustenance. Wings carry you aloft. They are those things that inspire you, that lift you up and out into the world and into ever widening circles of possibility. Individuals, families, and communities all need both roots and wings to flourish and thrive[1]. I think rich, coherent bodies of work, like Knight Thompson Speechwork, also have roots and wings. (They also provide them.)

Today I want to write about roots. I’m not going to write about the historical roots of the work, though if you’re curious about that I would direct you to Dudley’s two seminal articles on the subject. I want to have a look at the philosophical roots of the work, its roots in the soil of a rich system of knowledge. What are some of the bedrock principles and foundational assumptions at the heart of this work? In other words:

Why KTS?

Dudley’s written about this already, of course. We have the wonderful “Principles, perhaps” at the beginning of Speaking With Skill. As excellent as these are, however—and they are excellent; they are, in fact, the very roots I’m talking about—they are extraordinarily compact. They bear some unpacking. Specifically, there are some basic facts about what language is and how it works—facts that are not widely known and, in some cases, counter-intuitive—that undergird and inform Dudley’s “Principles, perhaps.” I’ve come to feel that it’s important for students of this work (and most certainly teachers of it) to do a bit of hard thinking about some of those basic facts.

A great many voice and speech teachers care deeply about social justice. We tend to be people who are aware of and sympathetic to the situations of individuals and groups who have been disenfranchised, oppressed, and marginalized. Patsy Rodenburg’s The Right to Speak inspired many of us, and passionately and articulately states a mission that draws many people to voice work in the first place—giving people a deeply-felt sense of their right to speak, and to be heard.

KTS appeals to many people for similar reasons. Instead of holding up a model of good or correct speech, and thus implicity or explicitly condemning other patterns of speech as ‘bad’ or ‘incorrect,’ KTS studies, investigates, celebrates, and embraces all possible speech sounds and all possible speech varieties. (“The actor, as an enactor of human behavior, is a scavenger of all behaviors and therefore of all speech actions. They are all useful to the vocal performer.”) For students who speak a non-standard speech variety, for teachers bothered by the elitist rigidity of Skinnerian orthodoxy and prescription (even if somewhat watered down, as it usually is these days)—for all of these, Knight Thompson Speechwork feels like a relief and a release. It feels right.

I think this is a good thing. I am delighted that so many people are drawn to KTS for these reasons. But it’s also important that the engagement with the work—that the understanding of the why of the work—not stop there. We don’t teach KTS because it fits with our politics, because it allows us to train actors rigorously without simultaneously perpetuating injustice and entrenched structures of social hegemony and discrimination. These are bonuses. We teach it because it works. And it works because it is so—because it is founded on hard-won knowledge about language, about perception, and about what things actually are.


Standard Language Ideology

There is a popular ideology that upholds standard English as a superior form of the language. This view comes from unacknowledged privilege, it is historically and linguistically naive, and it can be socially toxic.

So writes Stan Carey in his excellent blog Sentence First. In a different blog post (worth reading in its entirety), he puts it slightly differently:

Standard English, though a minority dialect, enjoys an exalted position in the family of English dialects. But this is a matter of historical happenstance. Socially privileged it may be, linguistically superior it is not. Variation makes communication more interesting, and it can be savoured rather than disdained.

These brief observations arise directly out of what linguist John McWhorter refers to as “the linguistic facts of life.” Though I refer you to McWhorter for a thorough explanation[2], the case is briefly this:

  1. Language changes. All language varieties are, at any given moment in time, in the process of changing into something else.
  2. The process of language change is slow—though shifts can be seen in the course of a human lifetime, it is impossible to have any real perspective on the nature, extent, and inevitability of language variation and change without studying how it takes place over longer periods of time.
  3. One of the main drivers of language change is error (or at least what we Anglophones are accustomed to think of as error). An apron used to be a napron. To say an apron, if you were someone who cared about the state of the language, was an abomination—an error that signified the decline of standards and possibly was a harbinger of the descent of the language into total incomprehesibility. (‘A whole nother’, anybody?) To take a more well-known example, the pronoun you, back in the day, was only used when addressing more than one person or when formal or respectful usage was desired. The singular, informal pronoun was thou. (Most European languages, of course, retain this grammatical feature, causing headaches for American learners attempting to wrap their brains around the appropriate usage of tu vous, Du vs. Sie, vs. usted, etc. Most non-Indo-European languages, interestingly, have more than two levels of address.) When you began to be used as the all-purpose second person pronoun (around 1600), it was a vulgar error, signalling the decline of the language. McWhorter quotes a 17th century scholar named George Fox decrying it:

Is he not a Novice and ummannerly, and an Ideot and a Fool, that speaks You to one, which is not spoken to a Singular, but to many? O Vulgar Professors and Teachers, that speak Plural, when they should Singular…. Come you Priests and Professors, have you not learnt your Accidence?[3]

  1. The English that we speak today is a result of the gradual accretion of these errors of usage over the centuries. But nobody walks around saying that people are using sloppy, terrible grammar when they talk about wearing an apron instead of a napron, or address their children, spouses, and friends as you rather than thou! Nobody claims that today’s English is just debauched Old English!
  2. Today’s standard English is ‘standard’ entirely by virtue of historical accident—it’s the dialect that was being spoken in and around London right around the time that London was becoming established as the center of society, culture, politics, and power. Its ‘standardness’, in other words, is completely arbitrary. It owes nothing to any kind of inherent linguistic superiority, euphony, intelligibility, logical consistency, or any other objective factor. It was and is the dialect spoken by the folks with the money, power, and social prestige. It is no better or worse, linguistically speaking, than any other dialect.
  3. Today’s non-standard English varieties are not decayed, lazy, or whimsically altered versions of standard English. They have developed in parallel with standard English, and have historical roots just as deep or deeper. African American Vernacular English, to take one example, can be largely traced to the regional English varieties spoken by the indentured servants, poor whites, and landowners who worked alongside with and immediately over the first slaves (who rarely shared a common language, and so were forced to adopt the English in order to communicate even with each other). Many individual grammatical features of AAVE may still be found in parts of the UK, decidedly non-standard though they may be. (AAVE’s aks for standard English’s ask goes back to Chaucer, at least, who switched freely between acsian and ascian.)
  4. Finally, all natively spoken human language varieties are systematic, rule-bound and predictable. No natively spoken speech variety is an offshoot of a standard version, riddled with careless, lazy and random errors. This seems to be a powerful and popular idea, especially in Anglophone cultures. It is wrong.


The center cannot hold

There is no thing as ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ English. There are many, many Englishes. There is such a thing as ‘standard’ English, to be sure (though obviously there is variation here, too—there’s more than one ‘standard English’). When it comes to a ‘standard’ accent pattern (leaving aside questions of grammar and word usage), the issue is even more complex. This is a subject we’ve written about before, and probably will again, but briefly: though there are speakers who are judged by certain listeners to have ‘no accent’ or a ‘neutral accent’, these perceptions turn out to be highly variable and unstable. And the accent patterns so-judged turn out to admit of a great deal of variation themselves.


So why privilege a particular dialect in the classroom? Actors will portray all kinds of different people, from all different kinds of language backgrounds. Surely a proper training must focus on equipping them to be able to convincingly own a wide variety of possible dialects. Why put one of them, socially prestigious or not, at the center of our teaching, especially when its centrality in our culture, our schools, and our establishments is nothing more than an arbitrary historical accident? Linguistically speaking, ‘standard’ English isn’t the center of anything. It’s just one variety among many. If we really want to understand language— what it is, how it works, and how we use it—then we must begin by coming to grips with this fundamental truth.


There are other reasons why KTS doesn’t teach a ‘standard’ accent pattern. (For starters, it’s an ineffective way of teaching the acquisition of any accent—even a desired ‘standard!) But that’s a whole nother post.



[1] Yes the whole thing is a mixed metaphor. How can you fly, airborne, while being connected to the ground via a root system? Nevertheless, I find it evocative and resonant. There is probably a better metaphor out there for this, but I think it’s true that as human beings we need both roots and wings.

[2] Word on the Street is a great introduction to the linguistic facts of life, though similar treatments may be found in What Language Is and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

[3] Quoted in Word on the Street.


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2 thoughts on “Roots

  1. Erik,

    I am a first year grad at UCI and I am 4 weeks and 92 pages into Speaking With Skill and my introduction to Knight-Thompson Speechwork.
    I came on this website to find some broader support to the very detailed exploration I have begun in the class and I found it in this article.
    I was taught a standard English in my undergrad and never in that training did the idea of English and every language being in a constant state of change. To think of the many ways we speak today as “… debauched Old English” is a funny thought for me initially. But one that will come in handy as I continue my studies at UCI over the next three years. So, thank you.
    Great article! I can’t wait to read more!

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