Dear Naomi Wolf,
I am the target audience of your recent article, Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice. I am a young, empowered woman who uses both “vocal fry” and uptalk. (I also say like and just.) I know you are coming from a good place in this essay. I know you want me to be successful. But I’m not taking your advice; I’m not going to change the way I talk. Here’s why:
1. It’s not the linguistic feature you hate – it’s females displaying the linguistic feature that you hate.
Men use uptalk and vocal fry, too. (And men say like just as much as I do. And there’s no data beyond anecdotal observation that women say just and men don’t.) But you – and others – only seem to care about women using these features. I haven’t found an essay addressed to young men and young women asking us both to give up uptalk. I haven’t read an essay about people wishing young men would stop using like. If the linguistic features themselves were really the problem, we’d see these types of essays.
2. There will always be something wrong with my speech.
Even if I stop using vocal fry and uptalk (and stop using the words like and just), I won’t speak perfectly. Accepting that there is a problem with women’s speech – and asking us to change – is part of the patriarchy. It’s not my use of vocal fry and uptalk that is holding me back; it’s being female. And, complicating matters, sometimes my use of uptalk or just – or any linguistic feature that is labeled as “not assertive” is helping me. When women sound too assertive in the work place, we can be penalized by not being hired for a job or being called bossy.
3. Some people hear vocal fry – not the absence of vocal fry – as a strong female voice.
Although you (and, admittedly, many others) don’t like vocal fry, that doesn’t mean that everybody hates it. Younger listeners hear this voice quality as authoritative. And, since I mostly teach traditional students – and I want to be seen as authoritative in the classroom, it’s probably OK that my voice sometimes sounds gravelly to your ears.
So, I’m not going to stop using vocal fry. First, it wouldn’t do any good: there’d be some other linguistic feature you’d think is “holding me back.” Second, one of my main audiences, my students, do think I have a strong female voice when I use it.
P.S. You quote Oxford English Professor Elleke Bohmer, who says: “I often observe my female students’ silence and lack of confidence in class with concern. How anxious they are about coming forward to express an opinion, to risk a point of view, so often letting the male students speak first and second and even third.” Maybe, if people were willing to listen to what women are saying – instead of criticizing how we’re saying something – we’d be more willing to speak up.
P.P.S. Here’s a great response to the article by a linguist who knows much more than I do.