Voice, personality, vocal fry, as Rebecca Gausnell returns
Rebecca Gausnell is back! After a wonderful chat in episode 23 (embedded below), we chat about what she's been up to since working on Berlin Station. And we dive deep into standard and neutral accents and debunk the "vocal fry" myth. Listen in!
Have you been singing in the shower this morning?
Rebecca: Yeah, I did actually. I did.
This is episode 30 of LangFM, the podcast about what people do with language.
If you've tuned in before, you may recognise the voice of today's guest. That's Rebecca Gausnell.
Rebecca: I go where the wind blows, and sort of hope for the best.
It's her second time on the show, and that makes me really happy. If you haven't listened to my first conversation with Rebecca, why not catch up on that first? (The link to the episode is in the show notes.) Go ahead, we'll wait.
OK, good. Great to have you back. Let's see what Rebecca has been up to lately. Her big project, Berlin Station, "this long, drawn-out six-months extravaganza", is now outand you can watch it.
A new leak from anonymous whistleblower Thomas Shaw has targeted the US embassy in Berlin. There's a leak in the CIA. We need you in Berlin. No one can know why you're there. Not the chief. Not his deputy. Not a soul.
Berlin Station is a TV series set in modern-day, well, Berlin, starring Richard Armitage as Daniel Miller, an undercover CIA agent tasked with identifying a whistleblower, and Rhys Ifans as intelligence veteran Hector DeJean. Rebecca had the chance to work with both of them as an accent and dialect coach.
Rebecca: I'm really proud with how everything ended up and, you know, we can let the listener decide. I am very happy, and I think that all of the actors did an amazing job, the entire crew did, that was one of the best crews possibly ever. Were with them for five or six months, so it was just a really wonderful experience. [...] When you're working on a film or TV show, typically those can be 10 to 12 hour days, and sometimes 5 or even 6 days a week. You pretty much only see those people, they do become your family. All of the crew and everyone working on it, it's very close quarters, basically.
I was wondering if people would stay in touch after such a long and intense time together.
Rebecca: I've been very lucky to be able to stay in touch with a few of the crew members on the set. But at the end of the day, everyone has the next job that they're going to, right, and then they have to put in a 100% of the same amount of energy into that next project. It's lot of energy. I do think it can be difficult to stay in touch with people. But that doesn't mean that it was any less amazing to be with those people in the first place.
Another thing I remember about my first chat with Rebecca is her love of interesting voices and accents, and her little collection of recordings. What about those German accents she encountered when working in the capital of Germany?
Rebecca: I wish I would have recorded a few more people. My favorite was definitely that we had two, no actually we had three women on the project. Funny how they're all women. They were from Switzerland and they spoke Swiss Deutsch, basically. So, I would have loved to get some some Swiss Deutsch. When they were speaking it the first time, I thought it might have been the scariest thing to ever come out of someone's mouth, but you know what, I appreciate it now. But I know that's not really German, it's a completely different thing.
It's certainly true that not every German would understand German Swiss.
Rebecca: Yeah, everyone else on the crew said that they they didn't understand what they were saying when they're speaking to each other. They spoke regular German when they're speaking to everyone else, but sort of their own secret language.
This made me think of situations I had with my family here in Brussels, when we were still new. We would sometimes speak German, on the underground, for example, being certain that other people would not understand us. Oh, how wrong we were… Well, Rebecca's partner is French, so I asked her if they sometimes did this, too.
Rebecca: Well, my partner and I speak French together and we always think that we're getting away with murder in French. But of course, London is France's sixth biggest city if you took all the French people and put them into one city, that'd be France's sixth biggest city. I don't think that we can really think that we're getting away with anything. Plus, most British people have had some sort of remedial French, even if they don't really speak French, they maybe could pick up a word here or there.
Foreign language speakers beware! Following up on another thread from my first chat with Rebecca, I wanted to talk about how she prepares for her work as an accent and dialect coach, which is not unlike the preparation interpreters go through before an assignment. You can find all the details in a blog post on Rebecca's website, the link can be found in the show notes.
Rebecca: It's absolutely everywhere. There are some amazing audio recordings of storytelling online, but I can't think off the top of my head what those websites are. I know of one website that compiles one old radio show that showcased Chicago from about the 1940s to the 1960s, which is amazing. And Chicago voices. It's really all over the place. Sometimes you have to go out, as I said, and find your own sample, so maybe find someone who is is a modern - what did I say? - Lithuanian grandmother who has lived in London for 40 years. Maybe you do have to find that. Or I have to call Russian bakeries up for just the pronunciation of one word. You have to be a little bit thrifty and I think along the way it's good if you pick up recordings as well. It's important to ask people I don't think that it's good to kind of covertly record them unless absolutely necessary. For instance, there's an amazing accent on the Orkney Islands that's just incredibly specific to Kirkwall and those little villages up there. I met with my friend, who's also a dialect coach, and we met this woman living up there and she said, "I just have to get a recording of you!". She finally agreed but sometimes you do have to beg, borrow and steal.
Ha! Any conference interpreter who's had to hunt and gather preparation material will know that feeling.
Rebecca: I think preparation is maybe 50% of it all. It's 50% preparation, 50% coaching and listening, and then from the coaching and listening, perhaps 40% coaching and 60% listening. So then that would break down to, what, 20% coaching and 30% listening.
But back to film and TV work. Rebecca, what is it like to coach actors? Are they open to working on language and voice?
Rebecca: I personally love working with actors, I think that's why I got into this. I myself studied to be an actor and so I feel like I sort of understand. When you go to drama school, you spend years in an acting class with the same people, and so I feel like I understand actors in that way. I think, of course, every actor works differently whenlearning an accent, just like any one works differently with learning any subject. Some people maybe are really good at mimicking and can pick it up by ear. Other people maybe have a more kinesthetic approach, if we can feel it in our mouths or if we can think of an image as well… image-based, OK, the sound is really round, or if we think we need more space in there. I myself am very kinaesthetic, I like to be able to feel it. But I know many actors who like pictures, who like images, some who like the phonetics. They want to be able to write in phonetics, see it in phonetics.
You mean IPA? International Phonetic Alphabet?
Rebecca: Yes, exactly. Not so many, I would say, but there are definitely some that do. I think that coaching bit - when we said, OK, we research first and then we make choices. The coaching bit is just figuring out the best way for the actor to get into the accent. I'm going for a very similar thing each time, but it's finding a different way in for each person. I think that's really the job of the coach, it's figuring out if this person are more kinaesthetic, visual? Do they want written work, do they want to just hear it, auditory, it's figuring that stuff out. [...] I think that dialect coaches and actors are very similar in that we're very perfectionist people. Perhaps that's why we work well together. I think that both parties are never quite 100% satisfied, we will continue working until basically the camera roll and the editing room say: OK, you have to stop. The director says: We're moving on!
Rebecca, however, not only works with actors. She also helps people beyond the film set.
Rebecca: Yeah, I have worked with people who perhaps have a foreign accent and feel like they're not being understood in the way that they would like to be understood or taken seriously in the way that they would like to be taken seriously in their work. Women who feel that their voices are not being taken seriously. And then, on the flip side, I've worked with people who were preparing for presentations, and perhaps they didn't think of it as a vocal thing, they thought of it as a presentational thing, but voice is sort of all into that category. I know that we tend to call it 'accent reduction' and that seems like a bad term to reduce someone's identity. We, in the industry started to call it 'accent modification' as opposed to reducing or softening something that's inherently part of the person. We instead work to get them to be better understood.
And this brings us neatly to the main topic of today's episode: the close link between voice and personality. The website BoingBoing had recently published an article with the title "Vocal fry, uptalking, nasal - women's voices can never be right - and it's sort of this history of women's voices being 'wrong'."
The BoingBoing article riffs on a piece by Jordan Kisner in the New Yorker asking the question if a woman's voice can ever be right.
Rebecca: We definitely, in any society, have standards that are put up. Often they're not even called standards, but neutrals, which is quite funny, that the standard is considered a neutral. Looking at voice, and also accent, my lovely colleague Amy Chaffee says that there are five things that define the standard in any society.
Amy Chaffee: I was an actor for the last 40 years. And I fell into dialect coaching about 10, 15 years ago.
Rebecca: And typically, the standard that defines voice is that it needs to sound white. It needs to sound male. It needs to sound heterosexual. It needs to sound educated. And it needs to sound cisgender. If any of those five points are gone then automatically that voice or that accent is no longer aligning with the standard.
Quick note: Cisgender referes to persons where the self-perception of gender matches the biological sex. But let this sink in for a minute. At the risk of oversimplifying: unless you're a white straight dude with a degree, who also self-identifies as a dude, there's a pretty big risk that what you say is simply taken less seriously.
Rebecca: And then in every country throughout Europe, there's a standard and it kind of falls along the same lines. There's a linguist in the United States whose name is John McWhorter.
John McWhorter: I'm John McWhorter at Columbia University, I teach linguistics among other things.
Rebecca: ... and he talks about how we tend to think, for whatever reason, because of how we've been conditioned, that received pronunciation or Standard American, whatever the standard is, is the main accent and that every other accent comes out of that. But in fact, we just have a language, English, and each accent, including the standard, comes out of the same place, if that makes sense. It's actually that no accent is higher or lower than the other, they're just sounds. The problem is is that because we can classify these sounds into 'do they sound white, do they sound male, do they sound heterosexual, do they sound educated, do they sound cisgendered', in that case then, things start being defined by a standard. The standard being, again, male, white, heterosexual, educated and cisgender. So when we're looking at women's voices being wrong, or different, it's because they don't necessarily comply with the standard.
Let's look at an example: I not only make podcasts, I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Some are hosted by men, some are hosted by women. The weird thing is that many female podcasters are called out for how they speak, the most frequent accusation being that they have "vocal fry".
Rebecca: That sound that sound that tends to come at the end of a sentence where the voice sort of falls off and we end up with a sound kind of like that. It's that popping and crackling sound at the very end.
A lot of podcast listeners - most of them male, I suppose - complain about female vocal fry. So many, in fact, that the team of 99 Percent Invisible, a hugely popular podcast about design, have drafted an auto-reply to use in such cases:
Hello! You've written in to voice your dislike of one of our female reporter's voices. You're not alone. We have a filter set up that automatically sends these types of emails into a folder labeled "zero priority." We'll review this folder and consider the complaints within, well, never. Amazingly we don't even have a folder for complaints about the male voices on our show, because we've never gotten one~ Isn't that strange? We think so. Anyway, hope you can continue to enjoy our free podcast somehow, and if you can't there are plenty of shows that don't feature women's voices at all. -99pi
Thumbs up to Roman Mars and the team at 99pi. The thing is, vocal fry is absolutely not a female quote unquote issue.
Rebecca: When I was in drama school, I heard it for the most part in the boys, hilariously, and then my partner does it all the time, and he's male. Funnily enough, particularly in English. But in that sense, I'm actually hearing it, recently, around me, more in men but it is the women that get picked on for it.
Interestingly, this is not a recent phenomenon. Hillary Clinton was not the only one getting criticised for her voice, or Kim Kardashian. This criticism dates back to the first century BC when the Romans used the word Afrania to refer to quote unquote unpleasant women. Gaia Afrania was the first woman to be allowed to speak before the Roman senate.
Rebecca: I'm wondering why women are being called out for it. One, obviously, because of society maybe not liking things that aren't considered the standard. And, of course, when voices are delivering the news they are in a position of authority, it's this instant response that this voice doesn't sound like our authority, doesn't sound like our standard, but that's something that society has set. But then, scientifically, Penny Eckert, who's a linguist out of Stanford, was saying that the male voice... when the vocal folds come together to make a modal voice - modal voice being the voice you speak with every single day, the one that's not fry, with actual tone to it - the male voice, the vocal folds are hitting each other 85 to 155 times per second. For women, that moves up to 165 to 255 Hertz per second. But for glottaling, both genders are actually the same amount of times per second, which is about 20 to 50 times per second when you make the glottal sound. And it's the same for men and women. So actually, the male voice isn't dropping so much as the female voice. We're getting this huge pitch range in the female voice that the male voice doesn't have.
So do we know when vocal fry became "a thing"?
Rebecca: No one is quite sure actually. There's one group that has originally said they traced it to 1960s British men, we can hear it before then. In terms of it being current, some people have blamed it on the Kardashians, but many other people have said, well, I don't think you can blame it on the Kardashians because they didn't invent it. Also, Penny Eckert brought up that perhaps it's that people are imitating the Kardashians to make fun of them and then that just kind of sticks. Also, there was a linguist, Mark Liberman of Language Log, and he was talking about how in voices and accents that tend to deviate from the standard there tends to be this what he called 'covert prestige' - meaning that it actually works in that person's favor when they're with that group. And Studies have shown that actually vocal fry with young people, they tended to hear it as someone who was young, urban, upwardly-mobile, so it seems to be a positive thing for younger people.
But surely, it's not a positive thing for… actors or other people who use their voice professionally? Or is it?
Rebecca: Yeah, I don't think it would have been acceptable in drama school. I don't remember having an issue with it myself, I do remember people in drama school with me getting sort of trained out of it. I think when you're an actor, you're a professional voice user, as we call them, PVU's, qhich is a very fun thing to assign to yourself. So you, Alex, are a PVU. For anyone who's using their voice professionally, you need the voice to be able to be flexible, to be able to do what it needs to do in a range of circumstances, and, obviously, fry voice was not something that was used in a character possibly out of 1960s New York. If you're playing that, then you need to be able to turn off that voice, if you will. Someone compared, which I thought was really great, the voice to an outfit. Every day, we're using voices and our own voice in various different ways to get what we want or need, perhaps on the phone, you know, we have a phone voice - Hi! How are you? - we have a voice when were trying to get kids to stop messing around, you know we get into that 'Stop that right now' kind of thing. So we have these voices, we have our professional voice, we have the voice that we use with our friends over a glass of wine. Your voice needs to be flexible in that sense. I understand the training out of fry voice, but again, we shouldn't think of it as training out, as reduction, but rather a modification and allowing the voice to be flexible. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has set up a standard for this, which I think is great, which is 3 questions:
[One:] Are you able to do with your voice what you need it to do?
[Two:] Does your voice reflect the image you want to project?
[Three:] And does your voice support the message you are conveying?
It's only if you answer no to any of these questions that maybe you should think about getting help with your voice. But if you feel that your, you know, vocal fry that someone is complaining about completely reflects you, and it doesn't bother you, then there's no reason really to change. Then it's their problem, right?
I think when individual clients come to you, they're coming to you because they feel that they want to change something. Normally, I am guided by the clients. If there's something that I think might be a real pathology, which, by the way: vocal fry is not considered a pathology, it's considered completely in the normal range of speaking, but in that case, yes, I would bring it up to them. But if it's not bothering them and it's not part of what they want to work on, then I probably wouldn't. In a drama school situation or in, perhaps, an acting situation, it might be something to address because it might not be fitting those questions and you needing the voice to do what it needs to do: Projecting a message or an image that it needs to project. At the end of the day, that voice is your verbal image to the world, it's the first thing that we hear and we certainly judge from it. Voice always has been used, for years and years and years, as a tool of prejudice. It's a tricky line to to maneuver but I think that from a coach standpoint, I always go with what the client is looking for.
So maybe, it's not really a big deal? And unless you have any physiological problems, you don't need to worry about it too much.
Rebecca: Some some ear-nose-throat people have said if you attempt to scream while vocal-frying, which I'm not sure is possible, but I would say: do not try, because they have determined that that is probably dangerous.
Phew, we're ending the show with an important message to all professional voice users out there: don't attempt to scream and fry-speak at the same time. There's enough screaming and shouting in this world anyway, so take this advice to heart.
A big thank you to Rebecca Gausnell for sitting me down on all matters voice. Again. I had a great time, and I hope you, dear listener, enjoyed listening to this episode. What's your take on vocal fry or other non-standard speaking habits? Let me know, on the podcast website www.langfm.audio or on Twitter by using the hashtag #LangFM (one word). You can find all the articles we've just discussed and more information about the people we mentioned in the show notes - also on www.langfm.audio.
Lastly, feel free review the podcast or share it with other language enthusiasts. And subscribe, so you don't miss the next episode.
I'll talk to you soon, on LangFM.
- Berlin Station on EPIX
- Rebecca's blog posts: Vocal fry, What does a dialect coach do?, Great links
- Cory Doctorow/BoingBoing: Vocal fry, uptalking, nasal: women's voices can never be "right"
- Jordan Kisner/New Yorker Magazine: Can a woman's voice ever be right?
- Wikipedia on Gaia Afrania
- Amy Chaffee
- John McWhorter
- The 99pi auto-reply
- Penny Eckert at Stanford