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Matt: Can a person who reads lips, like a deaf person, tell if you have an accent, like Southern or French or something? — Windsor Lakes, via email

This should round out our lip-reading essays. Nothing more that can be asked and answered, I’d say. Take that as a hint, buckaroos. So, try this for me: talk Southern for a minute. Or French. Or something. Where do all the Frenchy sounds come from? Okay, try it again, this time pay attention. According to speech pathologists, only about a third of the word sounds we make are shaped by our lips. Everything else comes from the back of our mouths or the tongue and teeth. So, a lot of your Frenchy talk was probably shaped by the back of your mouth, since French is a real back-of-the-mouth-sounding language. Anyway, there you are, speaking English in a Frenchy way, with your throat getting a workout and your lips only moving from time to time mostly with consonant sounds, which (except for pesky “R”) are spoken in the front of the mouth and lips. Consider also that regional accents differ mostly in their vowel sounds (the familiar “pahk the cah” weird “a” plus pesky “r”; or “ohwl,” Georgian for “oil”). That leaves our lip-reader in somewhat of a pickle, as far as detecting a regional accent. A regional speech pattern or colloquialism might give a clue, but otherwise, it’s lips without borders.

Dear Matt: Why do letters to complete strangers commonly begin with a seemingly intimate term of endearment like “Dear”? Are there other terms in current use in the English language for written salutations? Do other written languages parallel this claim of an equal level of closeness to loved ones and strangers alike? Sincerely, (isn’t “sincerely” a bit over the top for casual letters as well?) C., via email

And I am truly the Compleat Stranger, C. If I’m not “dear” and you’re not “sincere,” well, work on it. But, in fact, this question is almost irrelevant. These days, what with faxes and email, receiving a formal business letter on high-credibility stationery is as surprising as receiving a stone tablet in your mailbox. Basically, a business letter is just information cloaked in ceremony, niceties, obligations, all kinds of polite nonsense. Do you think the Renaissance huckster who began his letters, “Right worshipful sir” or “Worthy cousin” or “Sir, may it please your mastership” meant any of that stuff?

Back in those days, all business writing followed what was known as the ars dictaminis, rules for writing commercial or legal documents. In business letters, it called for some form of address (e.g., “Worshipful master”); salutation (“I greet you well”); notification (“May it please you to know”); exposition (“the wool was shipped”); disposition (“and I want my money”); and valediction (“May God keep you well, at least until my bill is paid”). Clerks and scribes wrote the letters based on those rules. The general format’s still used today, but then as now, nobody paid much attention to the real meaning of the opening and closing kiss-ups. A notable letter to a Spanish king was signed, “Your sacred Majesty’s faithful servant who kisses your imperial feet.” How does “Sincerely” look after that?

Business letters became the rule rather than the exception sometime in the 18th Century, when the world was getting too big to do business face-to-face. That’s when books on business-letter writing began to be published. They were filled with hints and rules and even boilerplates, so all you had to do was plug in your information. In general, they advised against flowery language, but in the address and valediction, that didn’t really change until after the Victorian Age. “Your obedient servant” was a pretty common closing in the 19th Century.

The remnants of the ars dictaminis that we’re left with today are “Dear” and “Yours truly,” pretty lame by comparison, but they’re just formalities, not words fraught with meaning. We may have had casual Fridays, but that doesn’t mean that all hell has broken loose in the smiley, hand-shakey world of contemporary business. You can’t very well write a letter that starts out, “Listen, you cube-dwelling weasel that I wouldn’t trust with anything and will crush like a bug,” or end it with, “I spit on you and your children and your children’s children,” even if that’s what you mean.

From what I understand, the Japanese are the contemporary champs at the business-letter grovel. It’s traditional to open with something like, “If you will permit it, we address you with all reverence and respect,” then go on about how you should be congratulated at your business acumen and for making your company so profitable. French, German, and Spanish salutations tend toward the respectful: “Esteemed” or “Honorable” or “Respected,” rather than “Dear.” But faxes and emails are even making these anachronistic. Soon we’ll be reduced to those miserable emoticons (:-D), and I’m not sure that’s progress.

I laugh in your face and kick your dog, M. Alice

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Comments

Visduh March 10, 2011 @ 7:52 p.m.

Along these lines, I've always been amused and puzzled by the exchange of correspondence between antagonists in wartime. In one of the trademark battles of the early Civil War, Grant and his former buddy, Buckner, exchanged notes that were signed "I am, sir, very respectfully your obedient servant." This was when Buckner offered a negotiated surrender of Fort Donelson, and when Grant told him in essence, "Hell no, surrender now and unconditionally, or I will attack within the hour." The obsequiousness of that closing versus the actual meaning of the text of the notes is just absurd. Neither was the "servant" of the other--they were mortal enemies at the moment. In that historical context, who cares about the closings of "Yours truly", "Sincerely", or even "Very sincerely yours"? They seem mild and innocuous by comparison. These niceties are just that, niceties that are generally devoid of meaning.

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Matthew_Alice March 11, 2011 @ 11:04 a.m.

Pretty funny example, Visduh. Hard to believe the convention was so common that he'd use the closing on such a letter without noticing the irony. It's so meaningless we just ignore it.

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JohnnyJ March 13, 2011 @ 2:39 p.m.

GREAT ANSWERS ALICE. ALWAYS MORE FUN WHEN ELVES AREN'T INVOLVED IN YOUR ANSWER.

OH, AND WHY IS "CHEERS" THE MOST OFTEN USED ENDING IN LETTERS WITH PEOPLE FROM UK BUT NOBODY HERE USES IT?

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Matthew_Alice March 14, 2011 @ 12:28 p.m.

Johnny: Cheers is a common British salutation to friends you meet on the street or whatever. It's very common in the spoken language, so I suspect this is why it finds its way into emails, letters, whatever. It's a pretty neutral comment (doesn't involve "dear" or any other over-the-top stuff) so it's useful if you're just writing a note to a friend or even to a stranger. I sorta like it and have found myself using it from time to time. Cheers! -- M.A.

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