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(Socio-) Phonetics in the news

The relationship between linguistic anthropologists and speech pathologists is a curious one. We work with some of the same materials and issues: speech sounds, speaking bodies, language variation, perceptions of speaking styles. Yet there is a difference underlying our approaches. Individuals typically work with a speech pathologist when they or someone close to them perceives their way of speaking as a problem, so that excessive divergence from a norm is seen as pathological. Linguists working from an anthropological perspective, though, tend to view variation in more relativistic terms. Linguistic anthropologists, therefore, are less likely to see divergence as pathology, and less likely to see communication problems as necessarily failures of speech alone.

I’ve just finished listening to Terry Gross interview film maker David Thorpe and speech pathologist Susan Sankin on the Fresh Air radio program. (I really do enjoy Fresh Air, notwithstanding my past criticisms.) Thorpe’s documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, explores what it means to “sound gay” and why he and other people react as they do to gay voices, including Thorpe’s own. It sounds like an interesting film and I look forward to seeing it.

In the latter portion of the interview, however, Gross and Sankin discussed a number of speech “problems”, and it is here where I have a problem with the discussion.

In an early part of the interview, Sankin describes “uptalk” as her “pet peeve”.

I think perhaps that's coming from the trend to embrace up-speak? one of my pet peeves.
that tendency to kind of speak in that, in that way where you're going up? makes your voice sound a little bit more musical?
and I think that's what people associate with a gay sound to some degree.[audio:]

We all have our pet peeves – I’m not a fan of impactful or other words that I think of as business neologisms – so I’m certainly in no position to criticize Sankin’s personal taste. But in the later part of the interview, Sankin suggests some things about “up-speak” that I find more problematic. One minor point is Sankin’s suggestion that it is a recent innovation among young women.

Terry Gross: OK, so when did you start hearing up-speak, and when did you start hearing it become widespread?

Susan Sankin: It’s been around for awhile. I would say at least the last couple of years, but maybe longer than that. Initially when I heard it, it was among younger women. um It seems now though that men have caught on as well. And it’s become as contagious as the common cold.

This use of rising intonation has indeed been around for longer than a couple of years. In her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place, for example, Robin Lakoff includes this.

There is a peculiar sentence intonation pattern, found in English as far as I know only among women, which has the form of a declarative answer to a question, and is used as such, but has the rising inflection typical of a yes-no question, as well as being especially hesitant. The effect is as though one were seeking confirmation, though at the same time the speaker may be the only one who has the requisite information.

(13) (a) When will dinner be ready?

(b) Oh… around six o’clock…?

[Lakoff 1975]

Like Sankin, Lakoff attributes the usage to women, and sees it as undercutting women’s authority. Even in 1975, however, there is reason to believe that – contra Lakoff’s assertion – the pattern was not unique to women. According to a footnote in Lakoff’s text, “This phenomenon has recently been recognized in the popular press, associated with adolescent speech, under the name ‘uptalk’.” I believe that noted up-talker George W. Bush would have been 29 in 1975; I wonder if that counts as adolescent?

There is another minor point I can’t resist raising. You might note that I’ve included three question marks in the transcription of Sankin’s speech above, marking what I hear as rising intonation. I’m not a phonetician, and perhaps someone will correct me in the comments below, but I hear those as ‘uptalk’ or ‘up-speak’. The pitch at each of those places rises noticeably, from 150Hz to 216Hz on up-speak and from 149Hz to 333Hz on going up, and from 146Hz to 260Hz on musical. This is not the same rising terminal intonation described by Robin Lakoff, but it’s very similar to the speech Sankin produces as an example of up-speak.

four score? and seven years ago? our f- I don't know if I'm getting this right. our fathers?[audio:]

Here Sankin’s pitch rises from 146Hz to 302Hz on score, from 147Hz to 288Hz on years ago, and from 135Hz to 274Hz on fathers. I’m not sure whether Sankin is intentionally using a rising intonation on the first example, but it has nearly the same degree of rise as her consciously produced example of up-speak. Its possible that she is affecting the pronunciation in both examples, but it may also be that she simply doesn’t notice all examples of rising intonation – even when she produces them. (I’m sometimes mortified, but no longer surprised, when people point out my own use of the business neologisms I profess to dislike.)

But those are asides. My real issue with Gross and Sankin’s discussion is its repeated moves to shame young women for producing “pet peeve” or “harmful” speech styles. Here is their discussion of up-speak.

Gross: Why does it drive you crazy when you hear up-speak?

Sankin: I think it makes women sound very immature, very unsure of themselves, and it’s almost as if they’re asking for approval. And I think that whole pattern is not helpful at all in terms of the way they present themselves, particularly in a professional environment.

Sankin also decries vocal fry (also known as creaky voice or glottalization) as harmful when produced by women.

Sankin: women are starting to imitate it and what they don’t realize is how harmful it can be to your vocal chords.


Sankin: You sound very fatigued or bored or disinterested. It sounds like you don’t have the energy to back up what you’re saying.

(The other problems Sankin notes, “filler words” and her own pronunciation of the /o/ vowel, are not attributed to women but to young people and New Yorkers.)

As has been frequently noted, both by scholars and in popular media, these speech styles are not peculiar to women, but criticism of the styles focuses on women, especially young women.

Perhaps what made me notice the suggestion from Sankin, Gross, and Fresh Air that young women’s voices may be pathological is its timing. This piece aired the same week as Nelson Flores’ “What if we talked about monolingual White children…” and Deborah Cameron’s “Just Don’t Do It”. Both scholars offer an ironic story in which the speech of a privileged group (middle class English speakers in Flores’ piece; business men in Cameron’s) is described as pathological to illustrate and comment on the usual media discourses around women, young people, children of color, and other groups likewise seen as ‘problems’. Perhaps Fresh Air was a victim of poor timing as much as incomplete point of view. In any case, I’d recommend reading the latter bloggers, or the 2004 “text and commentaries” edition of Language and Woman’s Place as an antidote to the women-and-youngsters-as-problem sections of the interview.

[Update 7/10/2015

Several people have pointed out that Fresh Air’s decision to interview Thorpe and Sankin together, as well as some of the discussion of “sounding gay” positions gay men as pathological. See for example Sameer ud Dowla Khan’s “open letter to Fresh Air with Terry Gross” on Facebook and KPCC radio’s recent episode of Air Talk that featured Benjamin Munson.] [Update 7/23/2015

On today’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Susan Sankin, linguist Penny Eckert, and journalist Jessica Grose on “policing young women’s voices”. Audio and partial transcripts are available here.]

2 thoughts on “(Socio-) Phonetics in the news”

  1. I found this page after listening to this podcast. I simply couldn’t believe that Sankin spoke so offensively about young women, non-native English speakers, and gay men.

    Thank you for posting this response and for the helpful links.

  2. Elaine Gerhardstein

    I just heard the second part of Terri Gross’ program on young women’s speech and the ways in which they are attacked
    for it. In 1989, I agreed to move from the San Fernando Valley to Eastern Long Island for my husband’s job, in part
    because I did not want my daughter to grow up talking like “A Valley Girl”. Guess what? The Valley followed us. My now 28
    year old daughter uses up talk and verbal fry unconsciously and unembarrassedly. She is also doing research in clinical psychology and preparing to write her doctoral dissertation. She was her high school valedictorian and graduated from college summa cum laude (U Conn) in the honors program. In vain do I tell her that her speech rhythms belie her intelligence and achievements. She disagrees. Society will just have to wait for us old farts to die.

    Elaine Gerhardstein, Miller Place, NY

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