WHEN the ``education president'' pronounced malaise as if it were spelled may-laze, it was high time for the GOBS (Guardians of Better Speech) to mount the barricades. Let it be quickly noted that presidential mispronunciation transcends party and ideology. Ronald Reagan used to condense government to govment (perhaps to prove he wanted less of it). When Jimmy Carter said nuclear, it seemed to come out nukelar. And to Gerald Ford, judgmental had four syllables - judge-e-men-tal. One is tempted to paraphrase Professor Higgins's impatient query in ``My Fair Lady'' and ask: ``Why can't Americans teach their children how to speak? These verbal indistinctions by now should be antique!''
Language abuse is so rampant, it seems to go almost unnoticed. Here are some typical examples:
Pr'meer for premiere. Ornches for oranges. Lon-jeray for lingerie. Prollem for problem. Congradulation for congratulation. Dint for didn't. Amurican for American. Gotcha for got you. Forn for foreign. Middy-evil for medieval.
With the controversy over United States English, a pertinent question might be: Whose English? Perhaps what we need is a mission formed to search for missing vowels and rescue battered consonants. Meanwhile, we would all do well to remember what irascible Henry Higgins said to Eliza Doolittle: ``Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech; that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible.''
Shakespeare put the case somewhat more succinctly. In ``Hamlet,'' he has the Prince advise the visiting players: ``Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines....''
Professor Higgins, deploring ``verbal class distinction,'' lamented that ``to use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.'' The Alan Jay Lerner lyric continues: ``An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.'' Worse still: ``There are even places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years!''
But in egalitarian America, verbal class distinction can tend to work the other way. To ``use proper English'' may be looked upon as affectation. Vowels are mauled, consonants slurred, and standard pronunciation goes out the window.
I'm not talking here about those regional idiosyncrasies. It's engaging to hear Bostonians ``Pahking their cahs in Hahvad Yahd'' or Southerners embracing us all in ``y'all.'' Nor am I concerned with such nit-picking matters as eether and eyther or tomaeto and tomahto. These are the amusing stuff of Gershwin lyrics. They have more to do with diction than with pronunciation.
George Bernard Shaw, in whose ``Pygmalion'' Higgins and Doolittle first took the stage, was an accomplished public speaker long before he became a playwright. Mr. Shaw once noted that he developed his public-speaking technique ``until I could put a candle out with a consonant.'' That was long before the microphone had made articulation irrelevant.
Speech reform has got to begin somewhere. And where better than with the education president? Is it too much to ask, awsk, or ahsk? GOBS don't think so.