Fresh-AIr

We know from decades of linguistic research that all people express themselves in ways that can convey an affiliation with a particular group or identity. We know that gender identity, sexual orientation, regional background, socioeconomic status, racial/ethnic affiliation, level of education, age, political beliefs, and many other social categories can be indexed through manipulations of voice quality, pitch, rhythm, vowel quality, consonant articulation, etc.

Crucially, it’s not just the minorities of these categories who use such features; majority groups make use of these indexical features as well. For example, straight male speakers of American English are known to have deeper voices than straight male speakers of many other languages; even prepubescent boys in the US have been documented to have significantly lower pitch than girls of the same age, even though the two groups are physiologically indistinguishable in their throats. This trend has been getting more extreme since the 1960s, with American boys getting deeper and deeper voices with each generation.

This means that inviting a gay man to talk about how his voice conveys gay-maleness is (scientifically speaking) just as valid as asking a straight man to talk about how his voice conveys straight-maleness, how a white person’s voice conveys whiteness, how a middle class person’s voice conveys middle class-ness, how a college-educated person’s voice conveys education, etc. But I can say I’ve never heard of such an interview from your program or any program; this is only something that gets asked of women, gay men, African Americans, immigrants, and other people who are in a socially un(der)privileged position.

The questions that get asked are “why do gay people/women have to talk like that?” or “why can’t blacks speak (what we consider) proper English?” instead of “why do straight people/men have to talk like that?” or “why don’t whites know how to speak (any variety of) African American English?”, etc. There is no logical reason why we should ask the questions like the former two and not questions like the latter two.

Not only is it inaccurate to label minorities as the only ones who convey their identities through their speech, it also perpetuates a misguided belief that there is a “natural” way to speak, or a way to speak that has no “styles”. This concept of “naturalness” or “authenticity”, which came up many times in your interview, assumes that only some people (i.e. minorities) are adopting “styles”, deviating from “natural” speech in order to convey their identity.

This myth comes up all the time with another linguistic feature brought up in the interview, “vocal fry”. This type of voice quality, which linguists call “creaky voice”, “glottalization”, “laryngealization”, or a host of other terms depending on the specific acoustic characteristics, appears to index a number of social categories in American English: younger age, urban background, and (lately in the popular media) a sort of femininity. Ms. Sankin’s technical description of the voice quality was not incorrect (it does involve a slow vocal fold vibration with often incomplete closure), except for the part where she said it is harmful or unnatural.

Endless popular articles and podcasts (and your interview) describe “vocal fry” as a deviation from a natural voice quality, that it can be physiologically harmful to the vocal folds, that it grates on the ears, that it’s a “style” coming from singers of pop music, and that it should be avoided in order to be successful in life. None of these claims has any basis in reality. In truth, these voice qualities are used extensively in languages like Danish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Hmong, and many indigenous languages of Mexico and Central America (such as Zapotec, Mazatec, and Yukatek Maya), far more than they are in English – and as you might imagine, speakers of those languages do not suffer from medical problems in the throat any more than speakers of other languages.

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Excerpt from Open Letter to Terry Gross, by Sameer ud Dowla Khan on Language Log

This whole post (and its comment section) is worth reading – it’s written in response to an interview on NPR Fresh Air about a documentary on “sounding gay” but also stands well on its own.  

Stop what you are doing. Go outside and breathe. The world will not end if you take ten minutes for yourself.
—  taking time for yourself is important
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Beyoncé’s super secret album just dropped this morning, causing quite a stir. In one of the songs, “Flawless” she samples Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism. In the song she says:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller

We say to girls – you can have ambition, but not too much

You should aim to be successful but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man

Because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage

I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important

A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support

But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?

We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments,

Which I think can be a good thing

But for the attention of men

We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are

Feminist: A person who believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes.

If you haven’t yet, check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s interview on Fresh Air for her newest book Americanah. The book also made the NPR best list for 2013.

Added bonus: book critic Maureen Corrigan’s review of the book.

They happen really fast, the sunrises. Sometimes you specifically set the alarm on your watch to go watch the sunrise. And as you pull yourself down into the floor - and that’s where the huge, bulging window is, that we call the cupola - and there’s the world glowing dark underneath you. And you start to see a few faint tinges of a sunrise coming as it starts to light the upper atmosphere, and then bam. The sun just pops into view, roars into view, because we’re coming around the world at it so fast.

And you can actually watch the sun move away from the Earth. And the light from it initially comes through the atmosphere. So the whole station glows with the light of dawn, with - all the big solar arrays glow blood red, and then orange. And then, as the sun clears the atmosphere, and it’s directly on us, then they settle down to sort of an iridescent blue. And then you can see the dawn come across the world towards you.

And then you go back to work and wait another 92 minutes, and it happens again. It’s not to be missed, and I tried to watch as many sunrises and sunsets as the work would allow.

—  Astronaut Chris Hadfield talks to Terry Gross

In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks’ cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.

For the past 60 years Lacks’ cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.

Lacks’ family, however, didn’t know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death.

In 2010 we spoke to Medical writer Rebecca Skloot who examines the legacy of Lacks’ contribution to science — and effect that has had on her family — in her bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,


Now, 62 years later the Lacks family has given consent to this controversial medical contribution. Researchers who wish to use “HeLa” cells now have to submit a request and proposal that will be reviewed by the Lacks family. This new agreement is in the interest of respecting the family’s privacy, though, they still will not profit financially from any medical study.

This is a remarkable story, both medically and ethically, about the rights we have to our bodies, even beyond the grave.

image via NPR