Wednesday, 12 September 2012

How do I sound?

It seems to me that "how I sound" is made up of the following three elements:

The timbre of my voice.  This is its pitch, tone and "colour".  Of all three this must be the most difficult to alter, dependent as it is on my gender, the length of my vocal chords, and countless genetically inherited physical factors (I'm often struck by how different my father, my brother and I look, but how similar we sound).

My accent.  This is of course another matter.  It is the product of the geographical locus of my early years, my upbringing, education and other influences.  I can alter my accent if I want to: I remember a boy who used to talk dead ordinary when we were at school in north-east London but who, when I met him again in our 20s, sounded as if he'd been to Eton.

My speech patterns and vocabulary.  While these, too, were formed by my familial, social and educational background, they have developed and changed over the years, shaped by my occupation, my reading, those with whom I share my life and spend my time, and countless other subtle influences.

I speak (and sing) in public a lot - mainly in church.  I am used to projecting my voice, and am conscious that this sometimes makes the volume of my non-public speech a touch higher than it needs to be.  My colleague and I often say to each other in ordinary conversation: "You don't need to shout - I'm standing right next to you".  This may be an occupational hazard.  But when I hear myself on voicemail, I am dismayed.  In my head, my accent is Received Pronunciation ("the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England" - OED) but in reality what I think is my "unaccented" southern pronunciation is corrupted by flat Estuary vowels and glottal stops.  The timbre of my voice seems mealy-mouthed and slack: its "colour" a sort of light brown.  Awful.

I was drawn to consideration of this by a recent experience in an airport departure lounge.  I was sitting in one of those rows of seats which has an identical row behind it facing the other way - so that someone sitting immediately behind you is as close as someone sitting next to you.  Because the person sitting behind you can't see you, he or she feels no need to lower the volume of their conversation - which you cannot easily ignore.  The person behind me on this occasion was an youngish-sounding American woman; and were it not for the fact that I was also mesmerised by it, I was so irritated by her voice that I would have pointed my wheeled cabin-bag to the other end of the lounge and removed it and myself thereto pretty sharpish.

The timbre of her voice was unattractive but unexceptional - no worse than mine - and she sounded reasonably educated.  It was the verbal tics she employed that did for me.  In conversation with her neighbour, she must have used the word "like" - both in the now-familiar sense of reporting conversation ("I'm like - you can't be serious!") and for general emphasis ("She was, like, so not listening to me") about 1000 times in the space of 20 minutes. Secondly, she made liberal use of Questioning Intonation - that habit of going up at the end of a statement so that it sounds like a question?  And thirdly, she employed what is called vocal fry - a way of pitching the voice below its normal register so that it becomes hoarse, rasping and possibly, supposedly, sexy.

I know what it is about departure lounges.  Once you're airside, you're formally in no-man's-land; you are in a notional interstice between countries and their jurisdictions; your bearings have been removed and you are sort of weightless.  The sense of disorientation this generates is exacerbated by windows of tinted glass which lend an unreality to the outside world (a strange, unpeopled place called Greater Airport) and depressingly pointless shops selling things that you could have bought for half the price outside.  They are not places where I generally feel buoyant.  Otherwise, I might not have taken against this (probably charming) lady as I did.  But it made me realise the extent to which I dislike these aberrations of speech, and resent their insidious spread.

They, and perhaps others, may have originated in the affluent young female population of the San Fernando Valley - essentially a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles - and disseminated via the powerful media industries of that vast city.  These "Valley Girls" with their "Valleyspeak" are, when you come to think of it, an extraordinary phenomenon - their "likes" and rising inflections now as much part of ordinary speech in Burford as in Burbank.  I do not have children - and if I had, they would probably be grown up by now - but I remember how strict our father was about unacceptable speech patterns my brother and I brought home from school, and wonder how I would prevent their modern equivalents taking root in my own offspring.  Maybe make them listen to themselves on voicemail.

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