Open Letter to Terry Gross

« previous post | next post »

Sameer ud Dowla Khan, a phonetician at Reed College, has written an open letter to Terry Gross, which starts like this:

While I am a loyal fan of your program, I’m very disappointed in your interview of David Thorpe and Susan Sankin from 7 July 2015. As both a phonetician who specializes in intonation, stress patterns, and voice quality, as well as a gay man, I found the opinions expressed in the interview to be not only inaccurate, but also offensive and damaging.

You can listen to that interview, and read the transcript, on the Fresh Air web site — "Filmmaker And Speech Pathologist Weigh In On What It Means To 'Sound Gay'":

Is there such a thing as a "gay voice"? For gay filmmaker David Thorpe, the answer to that question is complicated. "There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice," Thorpe tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But, he adds, "there is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype."

In his new film, Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe searches for the origin of that stereotype and documents his own attempts to sound "less gay" by working with speech pathologist Susan Sankin.

Several other people have suggested that I write something about this interview, and so it was on my to-blog list. But Sameer sent me a copy of his letter as possible guest post, and I think it covers the ground quite well. So here it is:

Dear Ms. Gross,

While I am a loyal fan of your program, I’m very disappointed in your interview of David Thorpe and Susan Sankin from 7 July 2015. As both a phonetician who specializes in intonation, stress patterns, and voice quality, as well as a gay man, I found the opinions expressed in the interview to be not only inaccurate, but also offensive and damaging.

1. Straight people convey sexuality in their voice too
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.

2. There’s no single “natural” way to speak
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. (I have no idea where Ms. Sankin got the idea that this is causing medical problems in the US; that’s simply untrue.) Those languages are just as “natural” as English is, and the voices used by speakers of those languages are just as
“natural” as those used by English speakers.

I could, but won’t (for brevity) get into detail about how Ms. Sankin’s claims about upspeak, filler words, and New York City vowels could be subjected to the same criticism I just provided for vocal fry. But when you step back and think about all the things that are identified as deviations from “natural” speech–vocal fry, upspeak, filler words, dentalized “s”, a wide pitch range, etc.–you notice that there’s only one thing that these features have in common: these are the things that are not traditionally associated with straight white educated male speakers of American English. And there we have it: what gets categorized as “natural” is just how people in power speak. And any feature that deviates from that is given labels like “unnatural”, “uneducated”, or just a “style”. Any sociolinguist could have said that in a second, but Ms. Sankin only provided this stigmatizing view instead.

3. This harms our community
Beyond the inaccuracies and the propagation of linguistic myths, the part that disturbed me the most in the interview was that your program is highly influential and well-respected (for good reason), and thus people across the nation will hear these opinions with a seriousness and receptiveness that they frankly do not merit. Interviewing Mr. Thorpe, a member of a minority group, to talk about how he is disgusted by features associated with that group, how he underwent therapy to try to rid himself of such features, how it is a part of his “self-loathing”, or how his disgust can be justified by the even more stigmatizing opinions of Ms. Sankin, is the wrong message to send to gay people, parents of gay children, members of any stigmatized minority, or the public at large. No matter what strides have been made in the past few decades, LGBT people are far more likely to be estranged from their families, suffer from depression, and attempt suicide. Hearing that self-loathing feeling inside them justified on an intellectual radio program can only be harmful. This will strengthen a narrow-minded view that gay men (and other minorities) are going out of their way to just sound that way, implying that even in their speech, their behavior is unnatural and undesirable.

4. Why not talk to the experts?
It’s unfortunate and disrespectful to those who actually do research on these topics that no linguists or speech scientists were interviewed to provide an informed, objective, and non-stigmatizing analysis. Robert Podesva (Stanford University), Benjamin Munson (University of Minnesota), LeAnn Brown (University of Manitoba), Fabiana Piccolo (Nuance), Erez Levon (Queen Mary University of London), Ron Smyth (University of Toronto), Robin Queen (University of Michigan), Birch Moonwomon (Sonoma State), Lal Zimman (UC Santa Barbara), and Greg Jacobs (York University) are among many researchers who have studied the acoustics and perception of what is typically considered “gay men’s speech” and related varieties of American English. In the future, I would hope that these would be people you would invite to give an informed opinion.

I hope that through my criticism, I have remained respectful. I know your program to have high standards, and I only want these topics that are so close to me to be subject to the same standards you give to other topics in your interviews. I very much appreciate your time to read this.


Sameer ud Dowla Khan
Assistant Professor of Linguistics
Reed College

Above is a guest post by Sameer ud Dowla Khan.

Update —Lisa Davidson, a linguist at NYU, was also inspired to write a letter to Terry Gross.

Some earlier LLOG posts on vocal fry, uptalk, and the connections between pitch range and biological sex:

"This is, like, such total crap?", 5/15/2005
"Uptalk uptick", 12/15/2005
"Angry Rises", 2/11/2006
"Further thoughts on 'the affect'", 3/22/2006
"Nationality, Gender and Pitch", 11/12/2007
"Mailbag: F0 in Japanese vs. English", 11/13/2007
"Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008
"Vocal fry: 'creeping in' or 'still here'?", 12/12/2011
"More on 'vocal fry'", 12/18/2011
"'Sexy baby vocal virus'", 8/15/2013
"Biology, sex, culture, and pitch", 8/16/2013
"Vocal fry probably doesn't harm your career prospects", 6/7/2014
"Real fry", 6/19/2014
"Freedom Fries", 2/3/2015
"You want fries with that?", 2/3/2015
"Sarah Koenig", 2/5/2015

And a few posts on whose ways of talking get negatively evaluated:

"Those slurry, sleepy southerners", 2/25/2004
"More illusions", 8/17/2005
"The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007
"'At the end of the day' not management-speak", 9/26/2009
"When did managers become stupid?", 10/1/2009
"Language diversity", 2/6/2015
"Un justified", 7/8/2015



  1. Mr Punch said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 6:57 am

    Didn't we recently have a discussion of upper-class speech in pre-WWII America?

    [(myl) Indeed. And we've had several discussions of "manager speak" and similar concepts that stigmatize bosses. The behavior of stigmatized groups is seen as marked and made the focus of negative scrutiny, in contrast to the behavior of "normal people". Most often, the stigmatized groups are also less powerful, but there's a long-standing populist inversion of this pattern. And of course who counts as an outsider depends on the context.

    But this doesn't affect the basis of the complaint in this case, which is that certain stigmatized differences were portrayed as shameful deviations from natural or normal behavior, and even as dangerous to health.]

  2. tony in san diego said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    Little bit of an overreaction here. She was interviewing a man who made a movie. This was not her issue which she was pressing.

    [(myl) Suppose instead this had been a sympathetic or at least non-judgmental interview with a white supremacist or an anti-semite? The comeback "This was not her issue which she was pressing" is pretty weak in such cases]

    [GN] I'm obviously a bit parti pris on this one, given my association with the program, but I think Mark's analogy is way out-of-line, an unfortunate (and atypical) descent into slippery sloppiness. The interview with Thorpe was well-handled, I thought, and dealt sympathetically and insightfully with his successive changes of attitude—from acquiring "gay speech" to finding himself revulsed by it after a traumatic break-up to reaffirming and reclaiming that linguistic identity. The interview was also good on the naive perceptions of that mode of speaking, as "creative" and "artistic," for example.

    The speech pathologist Susan Sankin, on the other hand, turned out to be uninformed both linguistically and sociolinguistically, as the letters and comments here point out. (I'd add only Sankin's unconsidered observations about "meaningless fillers" like like and um, another topic that has been investigated at some length, to put it mildly–see Michael Erard's excellent book Um, for example.) But given that Sankin was used in the movie, the producers' decision to interview her here was understandable. And in Terry's defense, she did push back on Sankin's comments on uptalk, asking if this hadn't become so well-established among younger speakers that it was no longer perceived as a manifestation of insecurity. She didn't press the point, but that's not usually her style, particularly when she wouldn't pretend to know much about the subject and when the views expressed aren't controversial in the way they would be if the interviewee were speaking in opposition to same-sex marriage, say. The ambient biases about uptalk and gay speech may be deplorable, but it's a little disproportionate to liken them to a belief in white supremacy.

  3. More on sounding gay | Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    […] Khan (a phonetician at Reed College) wrote an open letter to Gross, which Mark Liberman has now posted on Language Log (with a link to Fresh Air and a transcript of the interview). Khan has many of the same criticisms […]

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    Lisa Davidson, a linguist at NYU, was also inspired to write a letter to Terry Gross. You can find it here.

    Also, for more informed takes on the subject from recent radio broadcasts, check out Benjamin Munson on SCPR's AirTalk and Ron Smyth on PRI's The World. (Munson also appeared on Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast last year.)

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 8:44 am

    tony in san diego: If you interview someone who made a documentary on a subject he's not an expert in, you might also want to get input from someone who is an expert.

    It wouldn't have occurred to me right off the bat that there are experts in this subject. Maybe eventually.

  6. languagehat said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    Little bit of an overreaction here.

    I'm guessing you're straight. It's always so easy to label the reactions of others as overreactions. Being straight myself, I wasn't as attuned to the offensiveness of the assumption that the "gay voice" needs to be explained, but I am glad to be made aware of it. I was, however, raging about the idiocy spouted concerning "vocal fry" and the rest of it, and I am delighted to see it slapped down here.

  7. Brian said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 8:51 am

    Well written. I didn't listen to the program but the letter stands by itself.

  8. Dennis Baron said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    A perfect letter for me to use in class in the Fall. I heard part of the interview while driving, and my first response was, speech pathologist says it all, doesn't it? It's the term used by the NYC schools when I was a kid in the 1950s to "treat" stutterers and also kids from immigrant families, lower SES families, and of course kids who "sounded Black." Somehow I knew even in the third grade that the job title carried with it the assumption that language variation is pathology. And pulling kids out of class to go to the speech pathologist singled these students out the same way sending them to the principal's office would: it was a sign of bad behavior.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    From a scientific perspective, it makes sense to think that more common phenomena (e.g. the behavior of a majority or at least highly visible group in a given society) requires just as much explanation as less common phenomena (e.g. the behavior of a minority or less-visible group in the same society), but that's not a common-sensical way to think about the issue, and getting morally offended that non-specialists do not think about the world in the way that specialists do seems like self-defeating nerdview.

  10. Sally Thomason said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:39 am

    In 4th grade I was sent to the school's speech pathologist for treatment of my "s" speech impediment. The treatment had no effect on my deviant "s" pronunciation (I still have that), but I enjoyed the sessions — the speech pathologist was nice, we played enjoyable word games, and I loved getting out of regular class once a week. But this doesn't refute Dennis Baron's point, of course. Back when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh we acquired a talented graduate student from the Speech Department. She left Speech when, in a clinic, she encountered the clinicians working with an African American child on his consonant clusters — things that, she said, had nothing at all to do with the child's cleft palate and everything to do with his African American English speech. She didn't want to stay in a program that couldn't distinguish between pathologies and dialect variation.

  11. pd said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    "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."


  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:51 am

    There's perhaps also something unfortunate in this particular context about the "job title" of speech pathologist, as opposed to, say, "dialect coach." A certain number of people for idiosyncratic reasons of their own would like to change some aspect of the way they speak, and there are people who are skilled at teaching them how to do so. It is possible to help someone transition from language variety A to language variety B if that's a goal that is important to them personally without believing B is inherently superior to A, that all A-speakers ought to strive to become B-speakers or to, as it were, pathologize A. (And on the other side of the coin, it is not necessarily helpful for self-appointed guardians of the cultural identity historically associated with language variety A to pathologize anyone from that background who wishes to speak B as inauthentic or self-loathing, because that denies individuals their own autonomy, and takes an essentialist view of cultural traits which are almost certainly highly historically contingent.)

  13. seth edenbaum said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 11:18 am

    The issue is speaking with a way so marked by emotional insecurity that it manifests as self hatred. Maybe you should read up on the debates over Boys in the Band. Or maybe just this:

    The question is whether you can change psychology by changing behavior. I'd say, yes.

  14. Doctor Science said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    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 is fascinating to me. Where can I find the details? Is this vocal change happening with other English speakers, too? With speakers of other languages?

    [(myl) It's not clear that this is true. I checked with Sameer, and the references he came up on changes over time dealt with formant frequencies, not pitch; and because there are (I think) only two time points, with somewhat different collection and measurement methods, I'm not convinced that the result is really reliable.

    There do seem to be some differences across cultures in the amount of gender polarization in f0 (fundamental frequency, the main physical correlate of pitch), and Americans seem to show more polarization than Germans and Japanese. But it would be nice to have some replications of the result. See:

    "Nationality, gender, and pitch", 11/12/2007
    "How about the Germans?", 11/17/2007
    "Biology, sex, culture, and pitch", 8/16/2013

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Interestingly enough Ms. Sankin's website notes that prospective clients might "benefit from the instruction of a Speech Pathologist/Dialect Coach," so she's marketing herself on both sides of that distinction I noted in a prior comment, and perhaps it was the interviewer who chose to use one job description rather than the other.

    From a glass-half-full perspective, a few points from closer reading of the transcript.

    1. Sankin was asked a specific question about whether she tried to dissuade clients from wanting to change (precisely because the desire to change might involve treating a legitimate speech variety as a pathology) and gave a straightforward answer (which one might disagree with but didn't imho shy away from the point).

    2. It was perhaps helpful for a non-specialist audience to hear a precise and physiological account of dialect variation – instead of loose talk about sounding effeminate or childlike or whatever, Sankin was very specific that e.g. this is what your /s/ sounds like when you put the tip of your tongue here rather than there. Which (i might dare to hope) should help thoughtful listeners understand the essentially arbitrary nature of some of these features and their cultural correlations – there's nothing essential about masculinity or heteronormativity or any other such blah blah blah that dictates that you should or shouldn't dentalize your /s/ – it's just semi-random historical contingency.

    3. Thorpe himself says that at least as to one of the features of his speech he had disliked (his GOAT vowel) he ultimately didn't change but somehow through the process of coaching and doing exercises and the resultant heightened self-awareness managed to reconceptualize the situation, become more comfortable with the way he'd been doing it, and thus no longer want to change it. Which seems like something everyone could agree is a happy ending.

  16. Katie said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

    This has me wondering, as a linguist who has never studied SLP, is there any basis in reality for the vocal fry fear mongering? As in, is there some use of vocal fry that could in fact cause damage to the vocal folds (like, say, using your voice for teaching or singing can)?

  17. Todd said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 2:38 pm


    Not even a little. See Lisa Davidson's letter, for instance. There are languages which use the feature distinctively. Hard to imagine they'd do so if it led to actual damage. (No languages that I know of use self-face-punching as a turn-taking marker, for instance.)

  18. Christian DiCanio said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    I believe that there is a case to be made for why some people may believe that vocal fry is unhealthy for the vocal folds. I can think of two direct explanations for this. First, in the literature on speech production, sometimes one observes specific aspects of the acoustic signal that are associated with existing pathologies. For instance, smokers and speakers with laryngeal pathologies may have aperiodic phonation. While there is independent evidence for such speakers' health, the symptom gets confused with the cause. A researcher might associate the presence of a certain characteristic of the acoustic signal with an articulatory pathology. In other words, if they have aperiodic voice, then they must have a pathology. This is a classical logical error (affirming the consequent). Excessive use of high amplitude pressed phonation (or tense phonation) does cause vocal fold strain. In fact, Ingo Titze discusses this in his 1994 book on voice quality. Tense phonation involves lower H1-H2 values (an acoustic measure of voice quality). Thus, the bad thinking goes, if a speaker has lower H1-H2 values, they must have strained vocal folds.

    In the literature on voice quality, there has been a lot of hand-waving regarding the articulatory mechanisms involved. The larynx is a difficult mechanism to examine articulatorily, so we assume things on the basis of what the acoustic signal says. This only works insofar as there is not a one-to-many association between the acoustic signal and the articulatory mechanism involved. The problem is, we DO have such a relationship when it comes to voice quality. So, one can not just infer on the basis of one part of the acoustic signal what articulation is involved.

    Finally, I would note that harsh, pressed phonation is often mischaracterized as "creaky phonation" by researchers who don't know the difference between fry and tenseness (the latter is typically periodic and includes a high F0). If these two are falsely equated, and they do happen to share acoustic correlates, one can easily see how a hasty reading/understanding of the literature on voice might lead one to the wrong conclusions.

  19. Jim said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

    ""For example, straight male speakers of American English are known to have deeper voices than straight male speakers of many other languages; "

    One of the things that struck me most moving back to the US after living in Germany for years was how high-pitched American white women's voices were. It sounded like they were trying to sound pre-pubescent.

    "I'm guessing you're straight. It's always so easy to label the reactions of others as overreactions. Being straight myself, I wasn't as attuned to the offensiveness of the assumption that the "gay voice" needs to be explained,"

    Well I'm gay and I think all voices need to be explained. Singling out "the gay voice" is only offensive because it is singling it out. There are lots of straight male voice mannerisms that are fascinating in a ha-ha kind of way. The way a lot of Texan men drop their pitch around women comes to mind.

    It is also irritating to see it made some bogus kind of gay norm, the way that Thorpe seems t make it. It comes off as provincial and parochial. He sounds like he lives in some ghetto of clones all his own age and of his same class backgorund

  20. Chris C. said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

    When it comes, at least, to a dentalized /s/, it struck me recently that it has become noticeably more common in boys and young men than it once was. I hear it in YouTube and Vine all the time, even from regions and social contexts where I would never have expected it. (Clearly not a scientific sample, but perhaps worth looking into?) So that element of "gay speech" may be becoming "less gay". Which is kind of the point, no?

    myl remarked earlier on populist inversions of stigmas associated with privileged speech patterns, and it made me think of how in the UK there's now a stigma associated with a "posh accent". I can think of exactly one politician even among Conservatives who dares to talk that way in public.

  21. Brian said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    True, Terry could, maybe should, have had a different expert on the show to comment on Thorpe's film and the issues at hand. But the interview was primarily about Thorpe, his film, and his life experience, not about general speech pathology. Being limited in scope must necessarily leave some important details out.
    As for Thorpe's alleged "self loathing," it seems more like an issue of perceived inauthenticity. His stereotypical "gay voice" went into overdrive after he came out, so much so that it caught the attention of friends who he had not spoken to in years. I don't believe he's under any allusion that changing his voice will make him straight or even perceived as straight more often. Must everything we don't like about ourselves be described as "self loathing?" Sounds a bit harsh to me.

  22. Jeff W said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

    I agree with Geoff Nunberg’s assessment above except as below.

    Some of Mr Khan’s critique seems, to me, misplaced. His letter says there is “no logical reason” why we ask the question of how a voice conveys “gayness” and not the same question of straight people. The reason for the interview is, obviously, that Mr Thorpe made a movie whose very title “Do I Sound Gay?” raises the question of what “sounding gay” means. That might be an insufficient reason in Mr Khan’s view for carrying out the interview, given whatever harm Mr Khan thinks the interview is perpetuating, but that’s the reason. And, strangely, Mr Khan himself points to researchers who are asking what appear to be the same questions so his issue, apparently, is not with asking the question but with how it was answered.

    There is nothing in the interview dealing with “naturalness” or “authenticity,” that, as Mr Khan says, labels minorities “as the only ones who convey their identities through their speech.” Here is what Mr Thorpe says

    And, you know, at the same time I totally get that when I came out, I wanted to be recognized as gay, I wanted the world to know I was gay, and I wanted to fit into this existing community. So I think my voice really did change after I came out.

    [In response to Terry Gross's observation that one of Thorpe’s friends said his voice sounded “inauthentic”:] And that moment was a painful but ultimately worthwhile moment for me because it hurt me a little bit when she said that. Because I feel like I'm trying to be myself, and here she is saying, you're a fake.

    So, here is an interview where the movie being talked about makes a reference to “naturalness” and “authenticity,” the person who is the subject of the movie is asked about that, and that somehow gets transformed into the idea that the interview is conveying the message that minorities are the “only” ones who convey their identities through the way they speak? Perhaps the interview does nothing to dispel that assumption but I think it’s difficult to make the argument that an interview has to dispel an assumption that some listeners, like Mr Khan, might mistakenly think it is making. (As a personal matter, I might not even like that an interview does that because it’s assuming that I, as a listener, am making an assumption that I am not making.)

    Geoff Nunberg

    The ambient biases about uptalk and gay speech may be deplorable, but it's a little disproportionate to liken them to a belief in white supremacy.

    The disproportionality, while true, is not what is objectionable to me. What is objectionable to me is the imputation, as an assumption, of the motivations of the dominant culture onto the people who are responding to the dominant culture. The dominant culture views x as shameful, bad, whatever; therefore, those who are seeking to not x view it as shameful, bad, whatever—which might obviously not be the case.

    As an example akin to white supremacy, having to do with virulent anti-Semitism: my grandparents, Jews in 1920s Vienna, very consciously chose not to give my mother a more obviously Jewish name but instead gave her one that was not so marked. One can easily question their choice, if one wants to do so, but to do so on the basis that they were “self-loathing” Jews would be an incorrect analysis—I think they would say they were just taking into account the practicalities of the situation (and, if anything, were quite secure in their Jewishness).

    Mr Khan incorrectly attributes “self-loathing” to Mr Thorpe—it’s actually one of Mr Thorpe’s friends that makes the comment—but, in any case, it’s not clear to me what exactly motivates Mr Thorpe. He says “I myself wasn't comfortable with my voice, and I didn't know where it came from. I didn't know why it had changed so much. I myself was wondering, what's my real voice?” Whatever that means for Mr Thorpe, that doesn’t seem like an issue of self-loathing to me but one of developing one’s self-awareness and behavioral flexibility around the issue of one’s voice. But my point is if Mr Thorpe is responding in some ways to the demands of the dominant culture (as my grandparents did in 1920s Vienna), that doesn’t necessarily mean his reasons and those of the dominant culture are the same—they might be or they might not.

  23. David said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

    I was taught that while intermittent use of vocal fry (as seen in languages that use it distinctively) and vocal fry at very low volume (as used in metal music, greatly amplified) may be harmless, sustained use at high volume can lead to vocal fatigue and damage from excessive sustained air pressure against the vocal folds. Has the question been studied scientifically?

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

    I can't figure out whether Geoff Nunberg's conversion of "slippery slope" + -ness into "slippery sloppiness" is a typo, with a surplus p causing an inadvertent eggcorn, or was deliberate wordplay (as he seems to be characterizing myl's usage of a slippery-slope argument as uncharacteristically intellectually sloppy in this particular instance), but it's a lovely turn of phrase. Although fair warning that google hits for the phrase appear split between his usage and a more literal usage in more pornographic contexts.

    [GN] It wasn't a typo, and I was pleased with myself over the turn of phrase until you pointed out the other meaning, which once activated is hard to suppress…

  25. K. Chang said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:42 pm

    Perhaps part of it is our pattern seeking brain looking for identifying factors and voice seems to be as good as any.

    I think the Chinese expression that comes closest is 娘娘腔,but that didn't carry any gay context until recently. Literally it means. Sound like a woman.

  26. The Red Rhetor Digest (July 12, 2015) | A Collage of Citations said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    […] 2. Open Letter to Terry Gross (Language Log) […]

  27. Around the Web Digest: Week of July 5 | Savage Minds said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    […] Log featured this Open Letter to Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, that I found useful as a reminder that just because privilege […]

  28. Rubrick said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 2:05 am

    Most of what I would say on this has already been said, but I'd still like to echo the opinion that Thorpe was fine, and Sankin was decidedly not. I was glad that Terry Gross did at least try to ask the (extremely paraphrased) question "You're a speech pathologist. When people come to you asking you to 'cure' speech patterns which clearly aren't pathologies, do you still take their money?" (Answer: yes). But unfortunately Terry still treated her as an expert on the topic at hand. (To be honest, science isn't Terry's strongest suit as an interviewer, and she's really not equipped to spot and squelch scientific bullshit when it comes along.)

    I simply think Sankin should not have been a co-guest on the show. Thorpe would have been fine on his own. Having another, actual expert on would have been ideal, but that's not the show's format; Sankin was there because she was in the film.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    Rubrick: yeah, as I noted above I was glad Gross asked that question. It would with 20/20 hindsight have been better if Sankin had prefaced her answer by saying something like "well, as it says on my website I work both as a speech pathologist and a dialect coach, and when people want to change something about how they speak that is not objectively a pathology is when I'm acting in the latter role."

  30. Alexandra said,

    July 15, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

    Geoff Nunberg, maybe you could do a response from a linguist's perspective on a future episode of Fresh Air?

    [(GN) I wouldn't be the right person for this but I believe they plan to do something further on some of these questions.]

  31. Captain America said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

  32. The Gay Voice | ***Dave Does the Blog said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 12:50 am

    […] […]

RSS feed for comments on this post