thorp

The Divining Rod: A Story of the Oil Regions. Francis N. Thorpe. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1905. Cover design by Decorative Designers.

An earnest, romantic story of the early days of the oil wells in Pennsylvania. Thomas Bostwick becomes rich by sinking oil wells. Elder Blaisdon, a combination of Free Methodist preacher and spiritualistic medium, locates the first well on Bostwick’s farm with a divining rod and the farmer becomes wealthy…

Longthorpe Tower
Cambridgeshire, England by uplandswolf

Dating back to the early 13th century, Longthorpe Tower is a three-story tower house. Once home to Robert Thorpe – a local man who achieved moderate wealth through his connections at neighbouring Peterborough Abbey – Longthrope is perhaps most famous for its English medieval wall paintings.

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.  

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“You’re such a pain in the arse. Damn it, you should have been the one to outlast me.”