Cameron v. Wolf

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Naomi Wolf, "Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice", The Guardian 7/24/2015:

What's heartbreaking about the trend for destructive speech patterns is that yours is the most transformational generation – you're disowning your power.
[…]
[T]he most empowered generation of women ever – today's twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.

Deborah Cameron, "A response to Naomi Wolf", 7/26/2015:

A few years ago, when you were in Oxford finishing your thesis, you came to one of my lectures on language and gender. So I was disappointed when I saw your latest piece in the Guardian, exhorting young women to stop using 'destructive speech patterns'. Evidently I did a poor job of explaining the basics of my subject. Professional pride compels me to give it another try.
[…]
You made your name by writing a book that criticized the policing of women's bodies and their appearance. You recognized that the constant pressure to look 'better'—thinner, prettier, more groomed, more stylish—is a form of social control, fuelling a never-ending quest for physical perfection whose inevitable failure leads to alienation and self-hatred. And yet when it comes to women's speech, you take the same approach yourself that the beauty industry uses to sell its products. First convince women they have a problem, then present them with a solution. 'Detoxify your language and be a better, more successful person'.

Update 7/27/2015 — Amanda Marcotte offers some interesting evidence ("The war on female voices is just another way of telling women to shut up", 7/24/2015):

When I began co-hosting a video series on Game of Thrones, I braced myself for complaints about my voice. Not because it's a bad voice—I have a relatively nondescript, medium-toned voice—but because I had heard from countless women in the radio and podcasting world that no matter what you sound like, as long as you are a female speaking to a general-interest audience, you will be told that you have an irritating voice. […]

Katie Mingle, the producer for the popular99% Invisible podcast, gets so many complaints about her female reporters' voices that she crafted an auto-reply email to handle the volume of people writing in to grumble.



43 Comments

  1. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    If a woman writer said, hey, young women! don't make the duck face at work! would you say, that's policing women's faces!! Or would you say, what kind of idiot would make a duck face at work?

  2. Laura M said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

    Fascinating retort by Deborah Cameron! I don't buy it, though. Does she never encourage her female students to change their behavior, if it's clear that they're holding themselves back thereby?

    Anyway, I'm still reeling from your evidence that Steven Pinker employs as much "vocal fry" as the young women cited in the video. Perhaps that is why such women are perceived as "upwardly mobile"… because they are imitating, however unwittingly, a masculine pattern?

  3. Anders said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    to Bloix.
    That would be a strange commandment for a writer to make for two reasons. Women do not "make the duck face" at work to any appreciable degree, and "making the duck face" causes no difficulty.
    So yes, when a writer give commands that are not needed I would call it policing or something similar.

  4. Karen said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

    Well, goodness, wouldn't it depend on whether there was actual evidence that young women, and ONLY young women, were in fact making duck faces at work?

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

    Professor Cameron's race analogy seems slightly questionable. Many/most AAVE-speaking black Americans have the capacity to code-switch to some extent along a continuum between closer-to-standard and farther-from-standard (as well as other, distinct dimensions of style like formal v. informal, and deferential/polite v. confrontational/aggressive), and my guess would be that the optimal communicative strategy for minimizing risk during a potentially tense interaction with a non-black cop would typically involve moving toward the closer-to-standard end of that continuum. Maybe that wouldn't be the optimal strategy for everyone (I can see an alternative strategy where deliberately emphasizing low-social-status features of ones speech could be a way of signalling deference and/or lack of guile), but code-switching is an actual thing with a fairly rich sociolinguistic literature, and it seems foolish to think it's pointless (i.e. that the bad cop will react solely to e.g. skin color and not whatever signals are being sent via the language usage).

    It is simultaneously possible that, a) as Bloix suggests, many young people could use some code-switching coaching in terms of getting better at figuring out what sort of language usage may not convert well from an informal social setting to a more formal professional one, but also that b) the particular examples given by Ms. Woolf and many others about fry and uptalk are not helpful in that regard (not least because not empirically well-grounded).

  6. Christopher Meyers said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

    What's wrong with duck face?

  7. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

    Laura M – why are you "reeling"? The woman in the video is a student who was chosen to make an introduction of a prominent person in a relatively formal setting, and it is not surprising that the people who did the choosing chose someone who is able to speak in a manner that is conventionally acceptable in that setting. There is nothing the least bit irritating in the way she speaks and no one anywhere, so far as we know, has complained about it.

    So now we have evidence that one young woman, who was chosen to speak in a formal setting, spoke with less fry in that setting than one man who spoke in the same setting and – proof! There are no women anywhere who utilize fry more pervasively than any men anywhere!

    Anyone else see a problem with this line of reasoning?

  8. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    Laura M – why are you "reeling"? The young woman in the video spoke with a small amount of fry – an amount that is less than the man in the video. She is highly professional and accomplished woman speaking in a highly formal setting, and it would be bizarre if she were to speak in way that is not conventionally acceptable in that setting. There is nothing the least bit irritating in the way she speaks and no one anywhere, so far as we know, has complained about it.

    So now we have evidence that one woman in one setting spoke with less fry than one man in the same setting and – proof! There are no women anywhere who utilize fry more pervasively than any men!

    Anyone else see a problem with this line of reasoning?

  9. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

    Anders and Karen –
    AFAICT, you are agreeing that IF women did make duck faces at work, THEN it would be okay to tell them to knock it off (although Anders, I'm not sure about you – "'making the duck face" causes no difficulty'" is not intelligible.)

    So if we agree that SOMETIMES it might be okay to tell some group of people – young people, old people ("STOP CALLING YOUR SECRETARY A GIRL"),

  10. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    oops, didn't mean to post yet – continued –
    white people (NO, YOU CAN'T SAY THE N-WORD NO MATTER HOW COOL YOU ARE), black people (WELL OKAY, YOU CAN SAY IT BUT NOT AROUND WHITE PEOPLE) how to talk, then we agree that maybe it's okay sometimes to tell people how to talk. A tautology, yes?

    SO-
    EITHER some people, who seem to be disproportionally although not exclusively young women (and not coincidentally, young gay men) fry and uptalk all over the place and irritate the hell out of the old straight men whose approval they need if they are ever going to earn more than $30,000 a year,
    OR all young women fry and uptalk about the same as or less than many men (like Katie Lovrien does), and all the men who get irritated by it are delusional.

    But I'm an crotchety old man and I'm don't believe I'm delusional. I hear it and it annoys me. And I have people working for me! I try not judge people on how they talk but if I find that talking to someone is intensely irritating it's just harder to listen to them. "Like" is a killer. So are "Mam" for "I mean" and "Gnow" for "you know." And I HATE pronouns with no antecedents (you're telling me what "they" did? Who the fuck are they?) Uptalk and fry are right in there.

    So perhaps it might make sense to tell people that some of them – not most but some – do this thing that isn't really wrong but it's hindering your chances to MAKE MORE MONEY. Don't wear flip-flops to work, don't eat garlic at lunch, and don't fry.

  11. M.N. said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

    Also, the duck face is deliberate, while I'm not sure this is the case for "vocal fry". Do we have evidence that it's really something people choose to do on purpose? (I for one never noticed it until I listened to recordings of myself.)

    If it's an unintentional and natural property of someone's speech, then the duckface analogy is not so apt — a better comparison would be telling someone "Jeez, that Midwestern accent makes you sound like a dork." (Which would be a completely stupid thing to say, as we all know.)

  12. Guy said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

    @Bloix

    The introduced wasn't chosen at random. She was held up by a commented on this site as an exemplar of the "vocal fry" pattern. And I don't think that people are saying that proves women don't use vocal fry appreciably more than men. Also, the histogram a show that she indeed did use more vocal fry overall, although it's possible that Pinker had less only because of his use of the dreaded uptalk.

    @Laura

    I don't know what she would say. I would guess that she might say that it doesn't matter how women talk because whatever speech patterns they have is going to be deemed "annoying". As she argues in the linked piece, the cause and effect isn't "vocal fry is annoying, women are making themselves annoying by using vocal fry", it's that "women are (perceived as) using vocal fry, therefore vocal fry is annoying, I don't want to hire women that have any traits I associate with women". That cause and effect may or may not be true, but I think it's at least plausible that we wouldn't be hearing complaints about vocal fry if it were perceived as a trend among affluent young white men. I know I don't personally recall any articles like "young men are speaking with lower voices than previous generations, stop it, you sound like you're overcompensating" or any other article criticizing real or perceived changes in speech style among males – ever.

  13. Guy said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    "Introduced" and "commented" should be "introducer" and "commenter" – apparently my device's autocorrect doesn't recognize the -er suffix, even though it suggests "introducers" and "commenters" as replacements. Weird.

  14. Guy said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 11:02 pm

    "And I HATE pronouns with no antecedents (you're telling me what "they" did? Who the fuck are they?) "

    Wait, are you complaining about impersonal "they" constructions like "I hear they're making guacamole with peas now" or "they speak Spanish in Spain"? Not to get too far off topic, but I have never heard this criticized before.

  15. Chris C. said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

    Bloix, if you've been paying the LEAST bit of attention to the posts here on the subject, you'd know that you may not be delusional, but you're at least mistaken. Men "fry" at least as frequently as women do, and "uptalk" is also a straight male trait and tends to be seen more frequently from those in positions of power.

    Me, I barely notice it, and I often have to listen to recordings where I'm told it's present more than once to spot it. It's a perfectly ordinary way of speaking, and I can't imagine how anyone could find it so irritating.

  16. Bloix said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 12:12 am

    Yes, I understand that according to the pretty pictures, men fry as often as women and they uptalk too. That means one of two things: (1) people (men and women both, including some very successful and perceptive women) are delusional; or (2) the pretty pictures are not capturing a real phenomenon that is not expressed particularly well by lay people and is escaping the measurements shown in the pretty pictures. I think this is likely.

    For example, uptalk used occasionally to elicit an expression of understanding or agreement is perfectly common and not irritating. Uptalk in the middle of sentences or at the end of every sentence is a tic. Fry when pitch naturally drops is not irritating, and particularly in older men with deep, resonant voices it sounds like a natural growl (listen to 76-year old Ian McKellen's recent Fresh Air interview). Fry on almost every word regardless of pitch or volume is an affectation. I don't claim to be able to explain the phenomenon very well. I'm not a linguist. But like a person with Lyme disease, I don't appreciate being told that it's all in my head.

    I completely believe you when you say that you can't imagine why people find it irritating. I like cilantro; I completely believe people who say it tastes like soap. What I don't understand is why you and others think that if I say I find it irritating, I'm either a liar or a crank. Your experience is not the measure of humanity.

    For some reason the scientists who run this site seem to be intent on proving the delusional explanation. Actually, they don't think "delusional" – they think "malevolent." Anyone who claims to be irritated by fry and uptalk is actually a sexist oppressor of young women. I find that position almost as irritating as I find fry and uptalk.

  17. Mary said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 1:26 am

    bloix- nobody thinks you are lying when you say it's irritating. What is being argued is that this irritation you and many others feel is socially constructed, because the things women do that differentiate them from men are seen as negatives. In order to be more successful you must get the approval of the old white man, and in order to do so you must talk like him? Why should that be the case? What generation has ever talked like the generation before them? This is completely unreasonable.

    Also, you say this: "uptalk used occasionally to elicit an expression of understanding or agreement is perfectly common and not irritating. Uptalk in the middle of sentences or at the end of every sentence is a tic." Well I say it is also unreasonable (and pragmatically incompetent) to interpret uptalk as exclusively a question, or response eliciting, just because it shares intonation with some questions. Recent research has shown that other languages use their question contour in non-questions in the same way we use uptalk (research by Dr. Armstrong but I don't know the details of the publication). So this is not some unusual or unnatural phenomenon. What is unnatural is your refusal to interpret the intonation as anything but response eliciting.

  18. Rosina Lippi said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 1:53 am

    I'm taken aback by some of these comments. Generally my impression is that people who hang out here have fairly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of language from an academic linguistic (that is, descriptive rather than prescriptive) angle. But some of the comments miss what should be obvious. Why criticize the language of one group rather than the prejudicial stance that condemns the usage in the first place? The classic example is this: you can convince African-Americans that unless they speak white, they won't succeed and will never be accepted or make a lot of money. But ask any African-American who choses to speak white (to use a controversial expression) if that protects them from racism. I think you can anticipate the answer. Debbie put it very succinctly: "It misses the point that negative attitudes to the language of subordinate groups are just manifestations of a more general prejudice against the groups themselves. People may claim that their judgments are purely about the speech, but really they're judgments of the speakers."

    It's socially acceptable to criticize a group's language use only because we allow it to be acceptable. Naomi Wolf should know better.

  19. Deborah Cameron said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 2:43 am

    The question isn't whether people are genuinely irritated by young women's rising intonation or vocal fry: clearly they are. The question is, why do these patterns only seem to irritate them when they're produced by female speakers, while passing unremarked when men use them? (Which men do: that's fact, not opinion.) The answer is, it's not just the speech patterns that people are responding to. They are predisposed to judge women in ways they don't judge men. The language criticism is being used as a proxy, a coded expression of lack of respect for a particular group of speakers. That's why I don't buy Naomi Wolf's argument that if young women quit using these patterns they'd be taken more seriously, judged more positively and treated more equally in professional settings, Since the language is only a proxy, the people who complain about uptalk and vocal fry would just find something else to criticise. Wolf is telling women their inequality is a consequence of their own behaviour. I say the inequality pre-exists any particular behaviour and is the reason that behaviour gets negatively judged (regardless of what the behaviour is, e.g. whether it's speaking with high rising pitch (uptalk) or low falling pitch (the usual context for vocal fry)). And PS, young people's speech patterns are always labelled irritants and 'affectations' by older speakers: it happens in every generation, and we should know by now that it's an argument the older speakers are doomed to lose.

  20. GH said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    That PS is what gives me pause, since it doesnt' seem quite aligned with the rest of the argument and evidence.

    If this is a matter of "young people's speech patterns" (and particularly young women's) being deprecated by older listeners, doesn't that imply that there has been a genuine change in speech patterns? But multiplying the examples of older speakers, like Chomsky, with creaky voice, and particularly instances in old recordings, tends to suggest that there hasn't actually been an increase in this feature. So doesn't that raise the question of whether the measurements are picking up on the right thing? As Bloix suggests, the offensive use of "vocal fry" could be more contextual, reflecting a change in how creaky voice is used within sentence prosody, rather than just how often it occurs or how strongly.

    Also, even accepting that the negative feelings about "vocal fry" and uptalk have a sexist dimension, I don't think it quite follows that if young women give it up, men (and other women) are just going to find something else to criticize. In other words, that the critics just don't like young women in general.

    Rather, I would suggest that the negative reaction more likely comes from these speech patterns being a departure from a conservative norm or ideal of how young women should behave. So if young women conform more closely to those expectations, it is quite plausible that current critics would feel more positively about them. Of course, this would not in any way guarantee equality in the workplace or society, since the conservative stereotype of the ideal young woman is by no means equal. Also, meekly allowign the "patriarchy" to impose a purely aesthetic preference is not exactly empowering in the first place.

  21. Laura Morland said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 4:39 am

    @ Bloix —

    You completely misunderstood the point of my earlier post. I wrote: "I'm still reeling from your evidence that Steven Pinker employs as much* "vocal fry" as does the young women cited in the video."

    The reason I'm "reeling" (still!) is that I'd always been under the impression that this is a "young female" phenomenon, and I'd never been aware that some men do it, too.

    Liberman cited three instances of Pinker's "creak" in only 21 words, and noted: "if Pinker's period-doubling is somehow qualitatively different from the introducer's period-doubling, it's not obvious from the waveforms and spectrograms what the different is."

    Further, I made a related point that I'd like to reiterate. I went on to suggest: " Perhaps that is why such women [those who employ "vocal fry"] are perceived as "upwardly mobile" [in contrast with perceptions about "Valley Girl" speakers]… because they are imitating, however unwittingly, a masculine pattern?

    It would be more of a sociological than a linguistic study, but it would be an interesting project for somebody to pursue.

    P.S. It's nice to have Deborah Cameron chime in! I concur that it is striking "why … these patterns only seem to irritate them when they're produced by female speakers, while passing unremarked when men use them?" I would argue that it's something more than sexism. I am a woman, a lifelong feminist, and I find myself irritated by "these patterns" — almost as irritated as Bloix!

    Moreover, if my teenaged niece (whom I'm rearing) were to start employing "phrase-final period doubling," I'd do whatever it takes to nip it in the bud. Fortunately it doesn't seem to be a common phenomenon among girls in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    _________________
    * It's not "as much": I had missed the follow-up post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=20229), where Liberman reported getting "21.2% for the [young woman's] introduction and 14.4% for the Pinker sample."

  22. GH said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    P.S. It's nice to have Deborah Cameron chime in!

    Indeed! And having now actually read her full response to Wolf, I see that she had already addressed my concerns about the coherence of the argument, taking as given that there is a linguistic shift that is being led by young women, and using the older and male examples merely to debunk the assumption that this style of speaking is inherently disempowering.

    At the same time, I share J.W. Brewer's reservations about the comparison with AAVE. A police confrontation is probably not the best example, but it seems quite plausible that code-switching (and adopting standard English grammar in written communication) benefits some black speakers in their careers.

  23. un malpaso said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 9:48 am

    I haven't heard this much argument about fry since the trans-fats wars of the 00s.

  24. Guy said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 10:38 am

    @Laura Morland

    Of course, you being a woman and a lifelong feminist doesn't prevent your reaction from being a consequence of societal gender construction any more than a gay rights activist is immune from being ashamed that they have, or afraid that they will, adopt a "gay voice" – even if they are fully aware that that reaction is internalized homophobia, it won't necessarily prevent the emotional reaction.

    Given that we obviously do expect men's and women's voices to sound different, due in part to biological difference – and that most of us would be struck by a "male voice" coming from a female body or vice versa, I think it's pretty plain that the way voices are judged – at least when judged wholistically – is always influenced by gender.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 11:25 am

    (These are meant to be broader points that should not be taken to indicate any agreement, even partial, with anything Naomi Wolf has ever said about either linguistic or non-linguistic subjects.) The problem with Prof. Cameron's triumphalist point that the young always irritate the old but the future inevitably belongs to the young is that the young grow up and may change (in language use as other things) as they do. Take my cohort of AmEng speakers (or some subset thereof defined by race/sex/class/whatever), now aged around 50. The way we talked as teenagers circa 1980 no doubt had all sorts of marked-as-young features that annoyed the old people. Some of those we have kept and they are thus no longer marked-as-young because they are now the way 50-year-olds stereotypically talk. Others we have lost. This is certainly true with lexicon, and it seems somewhat random what's been kept and what's been lost (e.g. "awesome" as an all-purpose positive descriptor probably no longer "sounds young" whereas its near-synonym "bitchin'" has largely fallen by the wayside and has a bit of a "period" ring). Perhaps cohort-specific things about phonology/prosody are more likely to endure than lexical items, but I'm not sure that's inevitable. My cohort included the version 1.0 Valley Girls ™, and part of canonical Valspeak had to do with distinctive intonation patterns. If you had some archival audio of girls my age recorded "in the wild" at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1982 and tracked down the same speakers and recorded them today, I do not think it would be the case that each and every distinctive bit of Valspeak intonation will have turned into characteristic middle-aged-lady intonation. So the marked-as-young speech patterns of today (assuming accurate perception of what they are, which may be a problem) may or may not become the middle-aged speech patterns of 2040. The future is unwritten, as some old punk rock t-shirt I used to own said.

    More generally, there's a meta-question here about how people should ideally use language (whether we think of it as code-switching or otherwise) in an office or professional environment or, we might say more generally, a "neutral" environment where it is expected that people of different race/sex/age/class/etc. backgrounds are going to interact coooperatively and collegially. Approach A is that everyone uses their native language variety dialed up to the maximum to emphasize distance from, and contrast with, everyone else's native variety, because they're just being natural and authentic and everyone better learn to be wonderfully accepting and non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing about every one else's language variety. Approach B is that everyone dials down the distinctiveness of their own variety and converges toward (without actually reaching) some sort of "neutral" standard thought appropriate in the particular setting. Obviously "neutral" is in quotes because what the neutral/standard norm is perceived to be in the particular context will depend on historic contingency not unrelated to political/power dynamics (although it is far too simplistic to assume it will simply be the native variety of whoever appears to be most powerful), and it will be a lot closer to some people's native variety than others. But that's inevitable and unavoidable. Esperanto is a lot closer to some L1's than to others.

    One problem with Approach A, apart from the practical difficulty of getting everyone to be non-judgmental in this sinful and broken world, is that one social function (not the only one, but a significant one) of an identity-marker language variety in a pluralistic society to is to signal group membership and emphasize the boundary between members and non-members. So if everyone in an office environment does that, it can tend to promote cliquishness and factionalization along exactly the fault lines (race/ethnicity/age/sex/class/etc) that a "diverse" workplace might be thought to need to promote cooperation across in order to be well-functioning.

  26. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    It seems to me there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in play here. It's clear that some people felt some pre-existing irritation (justified or not) at the way (some) young women talk, without quite being able to say why. Now that unfocused irritation has been given specific targets by a viral wave of poorly supported pop linguistics. As a result, people are now primed to notice uptalk and "fry" (but only when used by young women), reinforcing the impression that these speech patterns are to blame for their irritation. Whatever the original cause of the irritation may have been, it's now been displaced by a largely manufactured aversion to uptalk and "fry".

  27. Mark F. said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

    @bloix – How do you feel about talking with a southern accent at work?

  28. Laura Morland said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

    @ Guy –

    To your point that my " being a woman and a lifelong feminist doesn't prevent [my] reaction from being a consequence of societal gender construction."

    It's important to consider that my prejudice is NOT necessarily a result of "societal gender construction." I believe, rather, that it is a question of *aural aesthetics*. I am simply one of those people, like Blois, who finds vocal fry to be genuinely irritating.

    I suppose — to turn his analogy on its head — in this instance I am like one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap… which is not a matter of "societal construction," gender or otherwise.

    The aversion to vocal fry could be comparable to one's taste in accents… or even music.

    I remember the first time I heard it a woman using vocal fry (outside a YouTube video someone once showed me): it was the voice of a (female) narrator on an ad for Cisco Systems that I was forced to watch between every segment of the Rachel Maddow show online. I would rush to mute the sound, I found it so annoying.

    The point is that I don't watch television, no females in my milieu use "vocal fry" (as I mentioned, it's not happening in Berkeley, and certainly not in Paris, whence I write), and so I've had very little exposure to it. I therefore bear no inherent social or gender prejudices against it.

    {Likewise I find a certain English accents to be completely annoying (although I love Irish, Scottish and Antipodean), whether male or female. Similarly, I could never marry a man with a strong (20th-century) New York accent.}

    Finally, now that I've learned that men do it too, I'm hearing vocal fry where I'd overlooked it before… and finding myself utterly annoyed by them as well!

    Why wasn't I previously able to hear "phrase-final period-doubling" in men's speech? That's for the likes of Mark Liberman to figure out….

  29. Rosina Lippi said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

    @Laura Morland

    Your preferences and tastes are of course yours alone, and you don't have to defend them. It's when you use them to judge others that the problems start.

    The construction of tastes and preferences does not happen in a vacuum. Aesthetic assessments are not neutral. They are socially structured and motivated. People with certain kinds of social and economic power cite their own aesthetic preferences as if they were based in fact, and thus sufficient grounds to silence or shame others.

    You may have heard people claim that *ungrammatical English "hurts my ears." The metaphor is a revealing one which stated more openly sounds something like: When you don't sound the way I think you should sound, the way that sounds good to me, the way I sound, you damage me. So don't be surprised if I reject and/or silence you.

    A nifty way of shifting blame from the person who is discriminating to the person being discriminated against. Sometimes it goes so far as to remind me of the classical excuses you hear from batterers: You made me do it.

  30. Guy said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    @Laura

    I actually do think cilantro takes like soap, my husband is from Mexico and loves it. He hates, however, the taste of root beer, as do almost all other native Mexicans of my acquaintance. He also can't stand peanut butter or pickles, which I also find typical of native-born Mexicans in my experience. Tastes usually ARE socially constructed. The very fact that you didn't notice how common vocal fry is in men until it was pointed out to you – and that your perception of it changed in response (!) – should give you pause in labeling your aversion an intrinsic part of your nature, rather than acknowledging that it is to a large extent a learned of acquired reaction.

  31. Laura Morland said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

    @ Guy — you make a good point. (And the French feel the same way about peanut butter; I think it's one of those foods — like Marmite or Vegemite — to which most people need to be introduced very early in life or they'll never appreciate it.)

    I also recall the famous story about a group of people from a remote part of Africa who were exposed to a Bach cantata, and to them it sounded like "the clanging of trash can lids." They heard nothing musical in it.

    So I agree that to a degree my reaction is subject to my culture — had I grown up in a culture where the sounds made in "phrase-final period-doubling" were phonologically meaningful, I probably wouldn't be averse to the sound.

    Yet I'm not sure that such a language exists.

    In the meantime, is hearing the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard a learned response, or is it simply natural that the majority of people exposed to it instantly despise the noise?

    I submit that there is something inherently displeasing about the sound of "vocal fry".

    It would be interesting to test groups of humans (remote Africa again?) from different parts of the world who have never been exposed to "vocal fry," — and who perhaps do not even know English — and investigate whether or not they find the sound inherently displeasing.

    If very few of them do, than I'm wrong!

  32. maidhc said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    Thinking that cilantro tastes like soap is at least partly genetic.

    scientists were able to pin down most cilantro haters as people with a shared group of olfactory-receptor genes, called OR6A2, that pick up on the smell of aldehyde chemicals. Aldehyde chemicals are found in both cilantro and soap.

    About 10% of the population has this sensitivity. However, liking or disliking it is only partially explained by the sensitivity. There are people who claim to have learned to like it.

    Still no explanation for why everyone except Canadians and Americans thinks that peanut butter is completely disgusting, while having no aversion to whole peanuts.

    I don't have any particular objection to vocal fry. I really hardly notice it unless it's pointed out. I was even okay with the clip of Paris Hilton that was posted the other day. I don't really care for the "NPR voice" (male or female) but it's not the vocal fry aspect of it that bothers me.

  33. Brett said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

    I have no particular opinion about vocal fry, whether in males or in females. However, I agree with Bloix that there appear to be different kinds of vocal fry. The Paris Hilton interview he linked to earlier sounds quite different to me than the fry from the woman introducing Pinker. Neither one annoys me, but I could see how one could be annoying to someone and the other not.

    However, my reason for posting this comment was not merely to make this observation. I have a hypothesis for how the varieties of vocal fry might possibly be distinguished. I am not a linguist; I am a physicist, and I know a fair amount about nonlinear oscillators.

    When a linear system is driven at a given frequency, it oscillates at that driving frequency. However, when a nonlinear system is forced sufficiently hard, period doubling may occur. (Other interesting things can happen as well, but period doubling is the one of interest here.) However, the period doubling does not have have to change the appearance of the motion very much. Instead of two successive identical orbit, the system may move in two very similar by not quite the same orbits. (I tried to find an image of this, but many sites that explain period doubling choos, for pedagogical reasons, examples that do not represent this feature very well. The best image I could find with a bit of Googling was Fig. 40 here http://farside.ph.utexas.edu/teaching/329/lectures/node54.html .)

    The result is that, after the period doubling, there is a new Fourier component at half the old fundamental frequency. However, the component at the old fundamental may still be very strong. When I think about a system with period doubling, one of the first natural questions to ask is: How much power is still at the driving frequency, versus how much is at half the driving frequency? This is a natural way that period doublings can look very different, and I hypothesize that it might help explain why different instances of vocal fry do sound—to some people, at least—qualitatively different.

  34. Guy said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

    I imagine aversion to nails on chalkboard is a combination of learned and natural. I know it didn't bother me at all when I was young but it did my sister who was only two years older. But now just thinking about nails touching a blackboard – not even screeching – makes me get goosebumps. I also distinctly recall once hearing something that sounded to me like an unusually squeaky marker – loud and slightly annoying but not really a it deal – and only getting the goosebumps-and-shivers reaction I usually get from it after turning around and seeing it was nails on a chalkboard. So that experience convinced me that my reaction is mostly learned, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it also has an instinctive component.

    @maidhc

    To clarify, I never doubted ther was a biological component with cilantro, I usually think nature/nurture arguments tend to present a false dichotomy. I was only arguing that a social aspect is present, not that a biological factor was absent. Division of restrooms into men's and women's rooms is obviously partially based on anatomical differences, but it is of course also a cultural phenomenon – there's no real reason why a society couldn't have only unisex restrooms.

    I actually don't particularly dislike cilantro, despite it tasting like soap (although I wouldn't say that I like it). I don't ever feel like it improves the dish but it doesn't hurt much either. I see it like how my sister can't eat mint jelly because it tastes like toothpaste. Of course mint anything tastes like toothpaste because most toothpaste is mint-flavored, but I happen to like mint regardless. My mother can't stand cilantro at all, and I suspect that's partially because cilantro wasn't in much of the food that she was exposed to when she was growing up. She complains that "they put it in everything now".

  35. Scott McClure said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 4:05 am

    It's clear that men and women speaking American English both use vocal fry/creaky voice, particularly in phrase-final positions, and that this isn't pathological or a new phenomenon by any means—particularly since older speakers are likely to exhibit more fry/creak for physiological reasons.

    With this understanding, and with the understanding that fry/creak is something that has attracted unfair criticism in women but not men for reasons of outright sexism, I think Brett is on to something in saying that there may be 'different kinds' of fry/creak.

    I wouldn't try to hang this difference on a physical distinction; I don't know if a clear physical distinction would exist. I'd put on an ethnographer's hat and ask whether it might be the case that some set of people are using fry/creak stylistically. Everybody blinks, in other words, but maybe some of this fry/creak is being used as a socially significant wink rather than just as a physiologically necessary blink.

    My hunch is that creak deployed stylistically may, in fact, be linked to gender. And if I've learned anything from Language Log, it's that such hunches are quite often wrong. But I still get the sense that Kim Kardashian is doing something different stylistically with fry/creak than her younger brother Rob Kardashian.

  36. Jeff W said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 4:13 am

    @Laura Morland

    In the meantime, is hearing the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard a learned response, or is it simply natural that the majority of people exposed to it instantly despise the noise?

    I was going to jump in with the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard example but you already did. This article in Popular Science says that people's physiological responses to the sound of nails on a blackboard were the same, whether they knew the origin of the sound or not—there is something about the acoustical properties of that sound that elicits that physiological response—but they tended to rate the sound more harshly if they knew it was the sound of nails on a blackboard.

    Obviously, social construction plays a part in tastes but people have individual tastes as well that are aligned with (but are not solely determined by) or run counter to the dominant social construction. People in the US somehow think ketchup on French fries is tasty and I, born and raised in the US, think it's completely weird, if not revolting. (And I like almost all food, including cilantro.)

    As for maidhc comment about everyone but Americans and Canadians finding peanut butter completely disgusting: a few years back, almost on a whim, I tossed a jar of peanut butter into a package of food I was sending to Chinese friends in Shanghai, thinking "Well, let's see what they make of that!" Upon receiving the package, my friend's immediate comment was "Oh, you sent the Skippy!"—which I took to mean he was familiar with the stuff. Turns out his dad eats it all the time. Who knew?

  37. Gene Callahan said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:18 am

    @Mary: "nobody thinks you are lying when you say it's irritating. What is being argued is that this irritation you and many others feel is socially constructed"
    Mary, I believe your turning to "socially constructed" as a form of criticism of someone's reactions is socially constructed.

  38. Gene Callahan said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:41 am

    "Still no explanation for why everyone except Canadians and Americans thinks that peanut butter is completely disgusting…"

    My Ghanian housemates used to cook with it. Thai dipping sauce is essentially peanut butter. The Daily Mail ran a story titled "Britons are nuts about peanut butter." Native Americans apparently made peanut butter many centuries ago.

  39. Laura Morland said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 6:11 am

    @ Jeff W –

    Thanks for the reference to the Popular Mechanics article (how did you manage to embed it?), and also for making the point that some people's tastes run counter to their "social construction." I, too, find ketchup on fries to be unnatural, and what a cute story about the Skippy-eating Dad in China! (It's worth pointing out, though, that — unlike in many parts of the world — peanuts are a part of Chinese cuisine, so he at least had exposure to those legumes.)

    @ Scott McClure –

    I for one believe that your "hunch" is correct: "I'd put on an ethnographer's hat and ask whether it might be the case that some set of people are using fry/creak stylistically. Everybody blinks, in other words, but maybe some of this fry/creak is being used as a socially significant wink rather than just as a physiologically necessary blink."

    You may be interested in watching the YouTube video that introduced me to "vocal fry" three years ago:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsE5mysfZsY The vblogger firmly believes that young women (and men) use vocal fry in order to signify their membership in a socially upwardly-mobile "in group". (Or in other words: "A curse on all the Kardashians!")

    @ Gene –

    Ha!

  40. Scott McClure said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 8:12 am

    I have indeed seen the Abby Normal video. This Rachel Zoe montage might have some good examples of fry/creak being used in a certain socially significant way:

    http://jezebel.com/5599824/rachel-zoe-literally-repeats-herself

  41. Jeff W said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    @Laura Morland

    Here's a very brief explanation of how to create links.

    Basically it's just some HTML code where you put the word that you want to act as a link in one place (which is between the opening and closing tags, the things that start/end with the greater than/less than signs) and the URL of the page you want to link to in another (which is inside the two "", which are inside the opening tag).

    If there's a preview of the comment available, as there is on this site, I always right-click the link I've made in the preview and open it in a new window to test it. That way you can be sure it works the way you want.

    ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

    When I read this post and similar ones (like the one about a "gay voice") it seems to me like there's a bit of affirming the consequent going on:

    If p then q.
    q.
    So, p.

    If someone adopts a "social construction" of some behavior, his or her behavior or attitude aligns with that construction/is modified accordingly.

    Someone's behavior/attitude aligns with that construction or is modified.

    Therefore that person has adopted the "social construction."

    David Thorpe modifies his voice to sound "less gay." -> He's exhibiting internalized homophobia.

    Laura doesn't like vocal fry. -> She's unwittingly adopted whatever social construction there is about vocal fry.

    I thought that the evaluative ("judgmental") nature of these observations was what bothered me but I think that really it's their fundamental illogic.

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    The broader problem with using oh-that's-socially-constructed as a pejorative is that it has no stopping point because there's very little about us that isn't subject to that critique. If Laura Morland's subjective dislike of fry is not to be taken seriously because aha, it's merely socially-constructed, the expressive identity of some young lady who irks Ms. Morland by using a lot of fry is likewise not to be taken seriously (or morally entitled to deference or respect from Ms. Morland) because that identity is likewise, aha, merely socially-constructed.

  43. Jeff W said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    J. W. Brewer

    the expressive identity of some young lady…is likewise not to be taken seriously (or morally entitled to deference or respect…because that identity is likewise, aha, merely socially-constructed.

    Yes, exactly. And what happens is that you've now disempowered, well, just about everyone. No one has any individual tastes or reasons worth considering—Laura Morland can't possibly have a reason like "aural aesthetics" that isn't a rationalization. We're all unconscious buoys swept along in the currents of social construction.

    I guess the other thing that strikes me about this whole line of thinking is just how binary, how black and white it is—you're either opposing the social construction or you've acquiesced/accepted it in some way. It's the way people see things—the only two choices are to fight it or give in— when they're enmeshed with something. You can't be aligning your behavior with what's expected simply as a matter of strategic choice, perhaps even saying "Really, it's dopey that they want this but hey, if that's what they want, who care's? That's their problem" and you can't be acting not caring about the social construction one way or the other. Either of those would be more of an unenmeshed response, kind of standing apart from the dynamic. To paraphrase Elie Wiesel slightly, "The opposite of hate is not love but indifference."

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