In a comment on my post about voiceover artists, reader Anthony Burber referred me to an interesting article by a middle-school teacher Jessica Lahey who was concerned about the number of girls in her class who had an ‘upspeak’ in their voices or, even worse, adopted childish voices.
For years, I ignored the habit of baby voice and upspeak because while it is irksome, I was grateful my students were speaking up in class at all.
I tried to look past the habit, hoping it, like most trends, would pass into history. But after a few years of listening to girls make smart and insightful points with tentative, childish voices, I felt compelled to intervene. I became even more concerned when I realized that the trend could be interpreted as something more sinister than mere vocal affectation. “Sexy baby voice,” or SBV, was showing up in television and films as an instrument of sexual manipulation, a way of exploiting our culture’s fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages.
Lahey makes the important distinction that it is not a question of natural pitch, which is biologically constrained.
Middle school girls often have very high-pitched voices that may or may not develop into a deeper chest voice with time. I’m looking for the more subtle lilt, tone, and retreat from authority delivered via that high-pitched voice. Most of all, I’m looking for what could be perceived as an intimation of sexual or societal submission.
Lahey says that these speech patterns are learned behaviors that can and should be unlearned with practice and some effort so that they will be listened to with greater respect.
I addressed the issue of upspeak some time ago (though I wasn’t aware of the particular word used to describe it then) in a post that dealt with the differential treatment that men and women receive in the public sphere, and in the world that I inhabit, I am glad to say that I rarely hear it much anymore though I am sensitive to it.
Neither of my daughters (who are now grown and independent) nor their close friends practiced either upspeak or baby voices. I asked them about why this might be so and whether they had noticed it among their other peers. One of them said that the teachers tried to stop this kind of talk, including the overuse of the word ‘like’. They also said that their group of friends consisted of high-academic achievers and so may have had more confidence in themselves but that they had noticed this more among the so-called ‘popular’ girls (which in the paradoxical world of high school consisted of a small coterie that were widely disliked), both in high-school and college.