4. Stuff you should know

Image via Stuff You Should Know

How do the words on the screen sound in your mind right now as you read this?

Do they sound like proper 19th century Aristocratic English? Or do they sound like Shakespearean English? Or do they sound like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”?

If you’re a normal person, it probably doesn’t sound like any of that. Instead, you’re reading this in a voice that sounds like yourself or any person that you would talk to today.

That’s because language evolves over time. Like any institution created by humans, it changes with the needs and customs of the day.

Which brings us to Josh and Chuck of Stuff You Should Know’s episode on vocal fry, upspeak and other emerging speech trends — and the corresponding backlash. (BTW This American Life and Fresh Air also had fascinating segments on this topic.)

Here are a few takeaways from the episode.

It’s reminiscent of the backlash against Valley Girl speak

There’s a pretty clear correlation between the backlash (largely from an older generation, often men) against vocal fry and upspeak and its association with young women. Is it sexism? Is it ageism? Is it fear of change? People who say they can’t stand these vocal mannerisms will tell you their problem is with the “irritating” or “immature” nature of the sound, not the person making the sound. But that doesn’t quite hold up if you consider that…

Vocal fry can be traced back to British men in the 1960s

The low, gutteral sound at the end of sentences was used by British men as a way to lower their voice and sound more masculine. If you want an example, check out any old YouTube clips of Sean Connery. Yes, Sean Connery has vocal fry! I wasn’t around the 1960s to witness any backlash, but Connery doesn’t seem to be seen the same way as, say, Kim Kardashian.

Women tend to adapt to language faster than men

There’s some evidence that women — Sean Connery excepted — pick up changes in the language faster than men. Then after about 20 years it becomes part of the general lexicon. “Like” is a good example. It was seen as a pointless filler word. Today, researchers have found that “like” serves a useful purpose in a communication toolkit by conveying nuance. You don’t have to make an authoritative statement all the time, and sometimes a little, like, hedging can build collaboration.

Get used to it

As I said at the beginning of this article, language will change. You may hate it, rail against it, be annoyed by it. Just like hating the sound of your own voice, maybe it says more about your own perceptions than the actual sound. But unless you still communicate in hieroglyphics and refuse to accept change, expect communication to be different tomorrow than it was yesterday.


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