Jeopardy gossip

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The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

"Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

Here are some examples of what people are reacting to:

Some people think that this is a regional accent of some kind:

Others think that it's an instance of "uptalk".

But I'm pretty sure that it isn't either a regional accent or a propensity for final rises that has caught people's attention. Listening, or looking at a display of waveform, spectrogram and f0, shows that the unexpected feature is mostly the lengthening of the final unstressed syllable:

Both "blue yonder" and "two hundred" have down-stepping pitch contours with high accents on each of the stressed syllables — the final rise is due to a falling-rising pattern on "hundred", which is especially noticeable because the final syllable is longer and louder than expected. (The rise on the final unstressed syllable, following a fall from the peak on the preceding stressed syllable, is in contrast to the pattern expected for "uptalk", where the final pitch accent itself is rising.)

And frankly, I doubt that Ms. Ashby talks this way in ordinary conversation or general public speaking — it strikes me as a practiced Jeopardy-player's exaggerated ritualization of a response type  often used in certain of that game's ritual verbal exchanges.

What I find most interesting about all of this is the evidence of some weird terminological evolution. Thus Sarah Platanitis, "'Jeopardy!' two-day champ Laura Ashby's voice confuses Twitter as she pockets $36.8k", Mass Live 11/24/2015:

Ashby first appeared on the quiz show on November 6, before the Tournament of Champions began. Now that the show is back to regular episodes, viewers are expressing their opinions about the prosodic wife, mother and practicing attorney at Miller & Martin in Atlanta. The joke, however, is on them as this theatre-loving smartie pants with an odd vocal fry has an earnings tally of $36,802 so far.

So apparently "vocal fry" is coming to mean "way of talking". . .

Also, "prosodic wife, mother and practicing attorney"?





  1. Eneri Rose said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 8:53 am

    Sounds neurologic/pathologic to me. I'd be interested to hear from a Speech Pathologist.

  2. bks said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 8:57 am

    IBM Watson is the most annoying Jeopardy contestant, ever.

  3. Levantine said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    To be fair, what she does with her voice when giving her answers (at least in the snippets provided) is so distinctive that it was bound to attract people's attention regardless of her gender. This is not to say that there isn't a broader issue of the policing of women's voices, but I think we're dealing with something far more specific here.

  4. GH said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 10:19 am

    I'd come across discussion about her way of speaking where different people described it both as "vocal fry" and "upspeak" (sic); I think the terms are used very loosely or ignorantly by some people to just mean "an annoying thing people sometimes do at the end of sentences".

    @Levantine: To be precise, she's not giving "answers" in these clips (Alex gives the answers, players respond with the questions). She's picking the category and value of the clue.

  5. sugarloaf said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    Vocal fry is a clear mis-usage. Praeter-supra-segmental, anyone? Or maybe, supra-supra-segmental would do.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 10:46 am

    Yeah, I'm not sure what distinguishes a "prosodic" wife from the larger set of wives-in-general. I'm not even sure if my own wife is a "prosodic" one or, um, whatever you would call the other kind. Credit for using an adjective typically found only in dense/technical linguistics scholarship (judging from the first few pages of google books results), but points off for using it with a non-standard meaning that is opaque on first reading? (The best I can come up with on second reading is "exhibiting distinctive/unusual/noteworthy prosody in her speech patterns").

  7. David L said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    My guess is that 'prosodic' is a mistake for 'prosaic,' the implication being that's she's jes' plain folks.

    But her intonation, as Levantine says above, is exceedingly strange.

  8. Katie said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    I would agree with Levantine–I've never heard anything like this before. If it's characteristic of some group of women, it would be interesting to track that down. But I think in this case, the response is not quite like the policing of women's voices that happens when the internet decides that something that is common among a large group of young women (and usually others) is too annoying to have to listen to. Then again, although it would undoubtedly attract some attention if she were a he, I suppose the real question is how much and what people would say about it.

  9. popegrutch said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    Side-issue: I wonder how many other tweets have been filed under the hashtag "Jeoprady" as opposed to "Jeopardy." I couldn't find a way to get Twitter to tell me a number (not a Twitter user, myself), but it looked like there are quite a few under each.

  10. anne said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:37 am

    It's definitely an unusual thing she's doing, and we would have noticed even if the contestant were a man, but I bet the rage exhibited on Twitter toward her and her way of speaking is reserved for women.

  11. JR said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:59 am

    It reminds me a bit of intonation patterns and ritual verbal exchanges you might find among auctioneers or some racing announcers, but much slower and outside that context.

    [(myl) Yes, that's just what I thought.]

  12. Levantine said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    GH, thanks for the correction. As a Brit who doesn't watch the show, I've never quite understood how Jeopardy works.

    Katie and anne, I think you're both right — the quirk would have been noticed regardless of gender, but the cyber-reaction may well be misogynistic in its extent and vitriol.

  13. lolphonology said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    The first-round break where Alex chats with contestants would be a good place to check whether she uses these patterns outside the gameplay context. Alternatively, they used to do post-game "testimonial" interviews with champions that would be posted on the Jeopardy! website; not sure if they still do them (but if they do, they disappear after the week-in-hand).

    Also to consider: while the rules are that the response must be "in the form of a question", players vary as to whether in the intonational melodies both in the clue-requests and in their responses.

    [(myl) If you can find a link to the show and a time offset to that part of it, I'll be happy to check it out.]

  14. lolphonology said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

    ^^ sorry, failed to proofread:
    Also to consider: while the rules are that the response must be "in the form of a question", players vary in the intonational melodies they use both in clue-requests and in their responses.

  15. lolphonology said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    [(myl) If you can find a link to the show and a time offset to that part of it, I'll be happy to check it out.]

    I have been searching but can't find anything yet (even on file-sharing sites). I think the "winner's circle" video feature is no longer done either. Sony is also stringent about keeping game episodes off of YouTube, unfortunately. I'll keep my eye out over the next few days.

  16. gribley said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    Vocal fry? It sounds to me like a great example of third tone in Mandarin.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

    J. W. Brewer: I'm not even sure if my own wife is a "prosodic" one or, um, whatever you would call the other kind.


    Credit for using an adjective typically found only in dense/technical linguistics scholarship (judging from the first few pages of google books results), but points off for using it with a non-standard meaning that is opaque on first reading?

    Agreed, but I'm disappointed if it's not found in all kinds of analyses of poetry.

    MYL: So apparently "vocal fry" is coming to mean "way of talking". . .

    It was totally predictable that "vocal fry" would be misused shortly after it became well known. Unfortunately, I don't happen to have predicted it. Totally postdictable?

  18. Rebecca said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    @David L – I think you're probably right about prosaic vs prosodic. But interesting to make that switch in print. My hunch is that that sort of thing can happen frequently in speech. Eg, yesterday in an interview regarding some protests in the Twin Cities, an interviewee referred 2 or 3 times to the police "enticing" the protestors to do something or other. I'm pretty certain from the tenor if her comments that she meant "incite". It struck me as interesting how well both words work semantically, with a fairly narrow difference.

  19. Robert Anderson said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    Imagine having a conversation with her. How could you avoid an amazed quizical look at her, at the very least? I'd have to get away from her quickly.

  20. Benjamin Morris said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    She used it during the interview (outside game context) as well:

    [(myl) Unfortunately that video has been taken down due to a copyright complaint — do you have a copy of the audio?]

  21. Patricia said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    I am not in any way a language professional, but I have always been naturally inclined to listen to speech mannerisms; just the way I'm wired (am good at detecting foreign accents, speaking foreign languages with little accent, etc.) I am also a Jeopardy watcher in recent years. In any case, I saw all of Laura Ashby's appearances.

    She did not uptalk in any very noticeable way when her responses to the clues were "questions", i.e., when she wasn't sure her answer was correct–her voice went up naturally as anyone's does asking a question. She did the final vowel lengthening on statements where she seemed sure of the answer (i.e., as a neutral statement of fact) or when asking for the next clue, as in hun-druuuud???, or thou-suuuuund???, etc. She did not have noticeable upspeak in the final show interview when she was talking to Alex Trebek (I listened quite carefully to this). Twitter posters who called this vocal fry were incorrect–she always did it on a rising intonation (upspeak(), not falling into a lower creaky range.

    Interestingly, the only person whom I ever heard speak remotely like this was the former NY Times editor, Jill Abramson, who DID extend her final vowel well beyond the norm, but did do it on a downward pitch (i.e., really awful vocal fry). During her tenure in the NYT job, her voice was much commented on online and studied by professional voice/language analysts including, I just found, on this website! She herself said she knew about it and that it was something her mother and sister did as well. Perhaps Laura Ashby's problem is also a "familial tic" or some weird regionalism. The other possibility is that it's simply a manifestation of nervousness and something she does so that her voice doesn't quaver–perhaps she was a former stutterer and was taught this as a child?

    Anyway, here's a nice example of Jill A's "extended schwas." Am surprised nobody at this website has brought up Jill Abramson as another, if different, example of this weird last syllable extension phenomenon. Maybe these are both women who just don't want to be interrupted LOL.

  22. John Kroll said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    In normal uptalk, the normal stress on syllables is preserved or even exaggerated, isn't it? Whereas with Ashby, it sounds to me as if the reverse is happening: Not only is the last syllable drawn out in "hun-dred," but the first syllable loses its stress.

  23. Kiwanda said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    I looked at #JeopardyLaura, and didn't see much if anything that I would consider "vitriol" or "rage". Maybe I missed something.

    I recognize that there are many vocal mannerisms or accents or whatever that should not be ridiculed or "policed". I wonder: is there *any* manner of speaking that it is OK to be irritated by? Supposing it's OK to be irritated by pretention, can some way of talking be pretentious? If someone from the midwest consciously decides to speak with a midlantic accent, is that pretentious? How about if someone speaks in a way that seems intended to indicate that they find all matters large and small to be equally droll and tedious?

  24. John Kroll said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    This is very short sample — she's the first person to introduce herself in this collection of teasers for use on local TV stations — but she sounds quite normal.

  25. Eric said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

    I couldn't find any clips of the contestant interviews from her episodes, but she's the first one in this set of "Hometown Howdies" ( It's probably too short to really get much information from. I can maybe detect a hint of the inflection in question in the last syllable of her name, but not nearly as pronounced as the examples from the show.

  26. Charles Antaki said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    To my (British) ears, it sounds like "continuing intonation": keeping her turn going when otherwise the next speaker might come in. I don't know what happens in the TV game, but if there's an element of people competing for the floor that might account for it.

  27. Qafqa said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

    I agree with Eneri Rose's assessment–I've known people with this kind of tic, often occurring similarly at the ends of sentences.

  28. Eric said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

    @Charles Antaki
    There's no competition for the floor in that sense on Jeopardy. The first person to press their button once the question is read gets a fixed time to provide their response, and the other contestants can't interrupt; if the first person gets it wrong or runs out of time, the other contestants get another chance to buzz in. I suppose it's possible that it's a habit developed for that reason in other contexts, though it doesn't strike me as a very likely explanation. I would generally expect people engaging in that sort of strategy to fillers like "um" and "uh", rather than simply drawing out the final word of a sentence or phrase. I haven't spent a great deal of time talking to British speakers, but from my limited experience, the latter would sound very unnatural to me there, as well; is it a common pattern in your experience?

  29. Faldone said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

    We were listening carefully to her throughout the show and she did not have this speech pattern during casual conversations with Alex.

  30. David Morris said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 12:48 am

    Maybe 'vocal fry' is the 'passive voice' of vocal tone – the catch-all term to criticise something you don't like.

  31. Max said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 8:38 am

    All of the clips in the post are of wagers, but here's a clip of her giving a question:

  32. Breffni said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 10:05 am

    The striking thing In the clip Max linked to is the guy's reaction: he does a grotesque imitation then says "Give me five minutes with her. Five minutes." Now that's repellent.

  33. Charles Antaki said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

    Thanks for the explanation of the Jeopardy environment. I see that her elongation can't be to keep the floor, and as you say it seems unlikely to be a habit that's just endured. On the other hand as a floor-holding practice it has the advantage over 'um' and 'er' of requiring much more intrusiveness from a would-be interruptor; so maybe that has helped fix it in her repertoire.

  34. edhall said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 12:21 am

    It's been erased now, but my wife and I watched the first program on our DVR and went back and listened carefully to the first-round chat segment to see if she spoke that way in conversation. With one possible mild exception there wasn't a trace of the extended final syllable.

    People seem to vary a lot in their sensitivity to such mannerisms. I recently watched the excellent series The Story Of Film by Irish-born film critic Mark Cousins. There were several one-star reviews on Netflix who claimed that it was impossible to watch the series because of Cousins' uptalk. Their loss… and I hardly noticed the uptalk.

  35. mike said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

    @Kiwanda asks:

    >I wonder: is there *any* manner of speaking that it is OK to be irritated by?

    People are idiosyncratic in what irritates them. It's not possible either to flatten all mannerisms such that no one is irritated, nor to convince someone that they should never be irritated by anything, ever.

    It's not clear whether you're asking whether there are vocal mannerisms that should be universally condemned. I'm pretty sure the answer there is no, there are no such mannerisms. That said, given what I said earlier, anyone is free to dislike the speech of others. But that person would have to then accept the consequences of their dislike, which might include things like being labeled judgmental.

  36. Patricia said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    Having heard her from her first appearance on Jeopardy, I think people may not be reacting to Laura's speech in an entirely negative way, but merely as surprise at its uniqueness, especially in the context of a game–i.e., is this fake and is she "trolling" to throw off her competitors? It's quite idiosyncratic apparently, since even people here don't know if this is a regionalism or pathology. As I said above, ex-editor of NYT Jill Abramson's prolongation of the end of her sentences on a downward pitch (definite vocal fry in that case) also caused much speculation at its weirdness (and caused many negative "judgments.")

  37. Andrew Shields said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 6:03 am

    The examples of Laura Ashby's voice, as well as the clip Patricia posted of Jill Abramson, reminded me of a friend from Maryland who also extended words at the end of sentences like that. The particular word that really stuck with me was the name of the President when I met here: "Clinton". At the end of sentences, she pronounced the "-n" part with a very nasal and quite extended vowel and completely elided the "n."

    It never bothered me, but it was very memorable!

  38. Kiwanda said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    @mike: "It's not clear whether you're asking whether there are vocal mannerisms that should be universally condemned."

    "universally condemned"? No, nor am I asking if certain vocal mannerisms demand summary execution of the speaker. Just to be clear.

    So, on your guidance, if I find it disconcerting to hear a suburban white kid talking "gangsta", or to hear someone talk to a frail old person in the tones commonly used for young children, or to hear a person punctuating their phrases with loud belches, or to hear someone who speaks uniformly in tones of utter boredom, or someone speaking baby sexy talk in everyday conversation, I run the risk of being considered judgmental. Should I be?

  39. Nathan Myers said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 5:40 am

    I recall a sketch on Saturday Night Live some decades ago in which sorority sisters were vilifying one absent member for having switched to common register when on the phone with her new employer. In recollection it seems as if they were doing this sort of dragging-out of final syllables as a marker of ingroup status.

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