The Voice: When Pigs Fly

From a combination of physical and social short-comings, Robert Brown-Barnett has a voice that has been a curse and a blessing. A hearing deficit compounded an isolation from normal speech patterns. The latter accounts for how his brothers and sisters have similar speech patterns.

Efforts to help him in the third grade produced rebellion. Giving up, the teacher said, "He doesn't want to learn to speak, we can't help him." The lack of parents and mentors shortchange many young lives. In retrospect, growing up would have been less stressful if he had listen to the teacher and speech therapist.

Kids will be kids (as well as some adults who never cease to be kids) based on their creativity in cutting comments. Amazing how people think that if you talk funny that you are funny in other ways. For instance, frequently a speech impediment has the following slur or variations thereof: "You wouldn't talk funny if you didn't put certain things in your mouth." Or, after repeating the sentence several times, the listener stopped the conversation with, "Oh, never mind. It can't be that important."

The inability to pronouce certain sounds had some amusing and embarassing moments. When a girl's pocket book was found in a desk at the beginning of the seventh grade math class, the teacher's immediate anger was replaced by an extemporaneous speech lesson on the importance of pronouncing the "r" the purse when saying, "Ms. Gray, I found a girl's purse in my desk."

As purse was forever banished to the written page with pocketbook being the verbal substitute, so were more and more words replaced with other words. Often, the other words were longer. Afterall, if one mispronounces a single syllable in a single syllable word, you can lose the whole meaning, e.g., purse. However, you can mangle any of the syllables in pocketbook and most people would understand that you meant those pantries which women wear. Of course, like purse, I limit my discussion of a woman's pantry to the written page.

If you don't like my puns, most of them are all of you all's fault, for I only repeat what I hear you all say. You're the ones who can't speak "mile" or "mire" differently. In the process of figuring out what a person is really saying as I hear a word that can have more than one spelling, I trip across alternative meanings which are sometimes punny in the funny meaning. Of course, like the lady said to Lincoln on his admitting that he was ugly,  perhaps I should pen my puns at home. However, self-constraint eludes an unrestrained wordster on a murderous rampage of the English language--see Clinton: To Punish or to P---- .

One the best summary judgements on my murdering the King's English was my grandfather's response when announcing that I was going to take French in high school: "You ought to first learn to speak English." It was as a freshman in French class that I was thankful that yelping dogs were not always shot on sight. In the recording lab, a strange screeching, horrible sound accosted my ears. Where was the smooth, melodious sound that I had heard since birth. In my head, of course. During high school, the older brother of a friend said to me something that I did not take to heart, "As I have got to know you, I realize that you really are very intelligent. But you must do something about that voice." This assessment was to haunt me in a few years when I was denied something that I wanted very much.

Even to this day, people misjudge me in person and on phones because of my pronounciation. A phoned-in subscription to the Wall Street Journal came addressed to a "Barb Bonnet." This was amusing. It was enligthtening when I received a free offer from AOL addressed to "Barb Bonnet." The WSJ sells its subscription list.

While my abuse is not even close, I understand the flavor of being discriminated against because of one's skin. My discrimination was now and then, not many times every day. Ironically, between the desire to have words that don't get lost and the desire to be educated, the content of my communication often gets lost in the broad pastures of the listener's prejudices.

Upon entering the United States Navy, it was the first time in my life that I had a sense of secure shelter, food and clothing. Of course, barracks, mess and dungarees were not the best of shelter, food and clothing. Nonetheless, it was the first time since age eight that I didn't have work forty or fifty hours a week. Or, steal, when I couldn't find work. With this sense of security, I applied myself to full-time learning doing quite well. When the annual recruitment of one hundred enlisted men (mustangs) to be selected for Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy, I was on the review list. The only thing needed was an assessment by three graduates of Annapolis. After the usual set of questions, they asked me to leave before giving me their opinion. Upon returning, they said that I had the intelligence to be an officer but if in command during a battle, it was unlikely that my subordinates would understand me because of my speech impediment.

When the same conclusion was repeated later aboard ship, I decided to learn how to speak better. Slowing down, I gradually enunciated enough syllables so that my impediment prompted inquiries as to where was I from. People initially guessed the Deep South which elicited the concoction of a story about a little known town in Georgia. Worked great until one day the other person asked, "What did you think of Mr.----, the history teacher?"

As my pronunciation improved, the guessed point of origin moved up the Atlantic coast, across the Atlantic Ocean to England. There it followed the convicts to Australia. By this time I was in college, but the basic voice had not changed. Boarding a crowded elevator while talking to a friend, I heard from the back of the elevator, "I'll be. Bob Barnett. I'd recognize that voice anywhere" coming from an old high school.

Then as well as now, people are uncomfortable with the response "speech impediment" to the question of where am I from. So, I created a town in Czechoslovakia to catch the credit or ridicule of my voice. It invariably led to lots of cuddling from girls when I said I was political refuge from Lotzakudlin, Czechoslovakia.

For those people who are embarrassed when I say that I have the remnant of speech impediment, I have adopted the faux pas of answering a question with a question. "Can you guess?" I know they will never guess since none of them have ever visited the small sovereign state of Speech Impedia in Central Illinois. As I convey that I have the remnant of a speech impediment, I share with them that it was a wonderful gift that proved out to be a large diamond in the rough that needed only a little polishing. The gift is one that people don't forget.

Consider how the 911 operator responded when I frantically called at 5am after having discovered my business had burned up in the night.

  • "Well, Bob Barnett ..."
  • "Wait, how do you know who I am?"
  • "Well, I recognize your voice from when I took your call after being robbed a few years ago."

Consider how I was on a corner talking to someone in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a voice says from behind, "You're from Richmond, Virginia, aren't you? You wrote my resume 15 years ago."

In graduate school, a voice came from the back of the crowded elevator: "I'll be, Bob Barnett. I'd recognize that voice anywhere." The caller was an old high school classmate. (Clearly, I should write rather than voice my intentions if I ever violates the Pope's personal innocence.)

If the proposals for better democracy and capitalism could sell themselves, I would not be explaining my voice. While history has examples of high pitched, squeeky voices (Lincoln and Churchill), I'm not so sure that in these times of plastic politicians with polished soundbytes that the problem-sufferers will find the substance behind the stumbles of a person who has focused on solutions instead of smoke.

Well, my pronunciation is not much better than a pig's squeel. For many years, I have met people who could better project in public the message on which I have worked hard and long, sacrificing family and friends. Since another messenger with better communication skills has not been found, I hope that my presentations will be sufficient for people to conclude, "Pigs can fly."

A toast to Toastmasters


  1. V.A. experience: An unpleasant reminder of my voice.

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