Panel discusses gendering of speech

Edward McFadden – Staff Writer

CLARION, Pa.- The Mary L. Seifert Cultural Series continued this week with “Valley Girl, Uptalk, and Vocal Fry: The Gendering of Speech Patterns,” a discussion featuring Clarion faculty panelists Dr. Herb Luthin, Dr. Susan Prezzano and Dr. Myrna Kuehn.

Dr. Kathleen McIntyre of social sciences moderated the discussion, and the event was co-sponsored by Clarion’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

The discussion explored generational trends in speech patterns, some of which may threaten the success of young people in the workforce today. Receiving criticism and increasing publicity, the three phenomena in the title of the talk are commonly reported to present an unflattering image of the speaker, at least in professional settings.

Most Americans are familiar with valley girl talk, but many may not be familiar with uptalk and vocal fry, at least not by those names.

These dialects can creep into normal speech patterns unawares. Uptalk, born out of the 1990s and the more easily passed on of the two, refers to the rising tone in a declarative statement toward the end of the sentence, when it usually drops and settles.

It is similar to the jump in tone at the end of a question, but less pronounced. It has also been called rising intonation because of this, and it is still common among young people today.

Vocal fry is more recent, noticeable and currently controversial. This occurs when a voice drops below its lowest register and becomes creaky. Irregular vibrations in the vocal folds create this sound, and it is pervasive among celebrities: Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and Katy Perry to name a few. As with uptalk, it is noticeable when it is overused.

One study cited by Luthin on vocal fry reported women – more so than men – with the speech pattern were rated as less trustworthy, competent, educated, hirable and even, in some cases, attractive compared with peers without vocal fry. The event delved into why women’s voices are being criticized in media, and what appropriate responses would look like.

Panelists examined the topic from different perspectives that tended to reflect their respective departments. Prezzano of the social sciences, cast the speech patterns in terms of media figureheads and social forces that shaped their development. Communication Department Chairperson Kuehn unpacked the implications of these speech behaviors on communication power and effectiveness.

English professor Luthin gave a talk on the root and nature of the speech patterns, particularly valley girl speech. He reported being among the first to seriously research this topic while earning his master’s degree in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s, and his presentation featured a demonstration of valley girl talk.

Critics have reported that these speech patterns are abrasive trends that should be stopped. Hank Davis of “Psychology Today” went so far as to call uptalk the “very opposite of confidence or assertiveness.” In a 2014 article of  “The Atlantic,” it was suggested that “young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions.”

Addressing the backlash against these trends, Prezzano referenced an instance when female reporter’s voices were criticized by listeners to the podcast “99% Invisible” for vocal fry. However, no complaints were received for the male voices on the podcast.

The talk asserted that a double-standard exists for men and women, concerning vocal fry and related speech patterns. Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” commonly speaks with vocal fry, but does not receive the criticisms of say, Jill Abramson, first female executive editor for “The New York Times.”

Luthin contended that it was not the sound of vocal fry that is causing criticism of women of media, but instead, a continuation of the long complaint against the female voice in general. He quoted Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, as saying, “This stuff is just one more way of telling powerful women to ‘shut up, you b*tch.”

A point near the end was made that, if vocal fry is a real problem in society, then men should be held to the same standard as women. The pervading thought was that women’s voices are not to be policed or held to an undue amount of scrutiny from men.

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