When Women Sound Like Little Girls

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele.

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele.

When I hear a grown woman use a child’s voice, I wonder what caused it and if the woman is aware of how she sounds. Does she think it’s sexy to sound like a baby or what? Okay, it’s possible some people have a voice they can’t help. Maybe they’d rather not have such a voice but they don’t know how to change it. There are at least two other possibilities: First, maybe sounding young feels safer so they adopt a meek, weak child’s voice. They might want to sound wimpy and unthreatening because they’re afraid of people, especially men. Second, maybe they think their peers will actually like them more if they have a babyish voice. They may be following trends in speaking, such as the valley girl accent and the vocal fry. Abby Normal describes The Vocal Fry Epidemic well on You Tube.


Lake Bell is a voice-over artist and star/director/writer of the new movie, “In a World.” She had been “personally ruptured and unsettled” by the vocal trend” she calls “sexy baby vocal virus… Not only is its pitch so high up, but it’s also a dialect, a speech pattern that includes uptalking and fry, so it’s this amalgamation of unsavory sounds that many young women have adopted. It’s a pandemic,” in Bell’s opinion. “I can’t have people around me that speak that way,” Bell says, “mainly because I… grew up thinking a female voice should sound sophisticated and sexy, a la Lauren Bacall or Anne Bancroft or Faye Dunaway. Not a 12-year-old little girl that is submissive to the male species.”




Slate Lexicon Valley podcaster and NPR On the Media host Bob Garfield talks about “creaky voice” or “vocal fry,” a gravelly lowering of the voice that conjures the sounds of “a door creaking or a hinge that needs oiling.” He describes the speech pattern as “vulgar,” “repulsive,” “mindless,” “annoying,” and “really annoying.” He wants someone to “wave a magic wand over women and have the frying come to an end.”



For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences. This “Valley Girl lift,” as fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich puts it, “reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one’s opinions and a radical uncertainty about one’s place in the world.” It makes women sound empty-headed.




One study recorded a college-aged woman’s voice while speaking in an even tone, and then again when employing the creak. When both samples were played for students in Berkeley and Iowa, peers viewed the affectation as “a prestigious characteristic of contemporary female speech,” characterizing the creaky woman as “professional,” “urban,” “looking for her career,” and “not yet a professional, but on her way there.” So the young generation likes this. Eek.




Science cites a study conducted by speech scientist Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, who observed the creak in two-thirds of the college women. She found that “young students tend to use it when they get together,” with the speech pattern functioning as a “social link between members of a group.”




Linguist Mark Liberman has documented the rise of the Valley Girl lift, which he describes as American “uptalk,” among even the manliest of men. He found it in the speech of a python wrangler, a NASA official, and George W. Bush. “Final rises” have actually been used by men and women to “assert dominance and control” over the conversation “by holding the floor, by exerting pressure on the hearer to respond, or by reminding the hearers of common ground. Only when young women employ it is the speech pattern so vilified.”




More awareness of what we do with our voices should open some doors of understanding. We might find that baby voices and stupid-sounding accents indicate, for one thing, that Americans are putting more emphasis on speaking like their peers than the aesthetics or meaning of what we have to say.





Visit http://wagele.com to check out my books, CD, cartoons, and essays, and Famous Enneagram Types.


Read my Psychology Today blog of 8-20-13: “How to Achieve Social Know-how.”