Your athletic voice

This is the sixth post in a series inspired by Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter “Sexy Baby Voice.” In previous posts last year, I’ve covered the three key features she uses to define this vocal style – bright resonance (which Bell refers to as “high pitch”), creaky voice (“vocal fry”) and legato articulation (“slurring”), and discussed the various ways that we can manipulate our vocal tracts to create or amplify bright or dark resonances.

Elizabeth Holmes, wearing a black jacket over a black turtleneck with her hair in a bun, gestures in an explanatory way

Photo: Glen Davis

In my most recent post I talked about Bell’s disingenuous use of the phrase “here’s my voice” to suggest that bright resonance is fake, and mentioned a similar scene in the sitcom Loudermilk where the title character contradicts a young woman when she says, “this is my voice,” based on her use of creaky voice. Conversely, Elizabeth Holmes’s use of low pitch was seen as evidence that she wasn’t using her “real voice” – that her voice was as fraudulent as her business.

On an individual level, these accusations of fakery are simply false – these people are all using their own voices, and not pretending to be other people. The accusation is not that they’re trying to use someone else’s voice, but that they’re adopting vocal qualities that aren’t “really theirs.”

People like Bell, or Loudermilk, or the people who excitedly shared clips of Holmes speaking in a normal pitch range for American women, have strong feelings about this. Why do they care? I’ve heard three arguments: that producing speech with these qualities takes effort, and it covers up their “real voice.” And there’s an accusation of motive: their false voices are false pretenses to try and get something.

First, the effort: the biggest difference between “vocal fry” by itself and “sexy baby voice” is bright resonance. As I discussed in my post on youth, bright resonance is generally associated with youth and femininity, because it’s usually caused by small vocal folds in small vocal tracts, and women and children tend to be smaller and have thinner vocal folds. Even younger women tend to have brighter resonance than older women, primarily because of the effect of hormonal changes during childbirth and menopause.

It’s worth noting that Bell’s main target is older women who retain that combination of bright resonance and creak (or maybe even adopt it) in their middle age and beyond. Her claim is that these women’s “real voices” have darker resonances, so the bright resonance is fake, and it requires effort. So when she says that “sexy baby voice” is “athletic,” that only applies to older women.

I can confirm that point at least from some experience here, having testosterone-thickened vocal folds and a relatively large vocal tract: producing bright resonance takes a fair amount of work, especially if you try to adopt the habits all at once later in life. But if the women in question have adopted these habits gradually, as their vocal tracts change, then it may not take a lot of conscious effort.

Bell’s criticism of older women with “sexy baby voice” reminds me of similar criticism of older women for “dressing young,” in ways that may or may not be overtly sexualized, or taking on other features of the appearance of young women, like hairstyle, hair color and mannerisms, or even getting cosmetic surgery with the goal of looking younger. She is essentially accusing these older women of faking youth – or trying to – with their voices.

Bell’s message to these older women – you don’t have to try so hard! You can be accepted and valued for your maturity! Chasing youthful appearance is a trap! – seems benign on the surface. It’s not clear she’s getting through, just as it’s not clear others are getting through with similar messages about older women wearing short skirts or getting facial surgery. And if the effort is not that much once the habits are established, then there’s not much to the argument in the case of voice.

In a future post I’ll talk about the next argument, that older women who produce creaky voice with bright resonance and legato articulation are covering up their “real” voices, which of course use modal phonation, dark resonance and staccato articulation.

In a captioned scene from Loudermilk, a salesclerk says to Loudermilk, "I can't help it. This is my voice."

That is not your voice

This is the fifth post in a series inspired by Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter “Sexy Baby Voice.” In previous posts I’ve covered the three key features she uses to define this vocal style – bright resonance (which Bell refers to as “high pitch”), creaky voice (“vocal fry”) and legato articulation (“slurring”), and discussed the various ways that we can manipulate our vocal tracts to create or amplify bright or dark resonances. Now I want to talk about your voice.

Not your voice, but what people mean when they say “your voice.” A friend who’s a vocal coach and read my earlier posts sent me a not-very-funny opening scene from a sitcom called Loudermilk, where the title character (played by Ron Livingstone of Office Space) mocks and insults a young woman who takes his order at a coffee bar. The salesclerk is friendly, prompt and thorough; Loudermilk has no cause for complaint. His abuse is entirely based on his dislike for the sound of her voice.

Anyone who’s read this series or listened to the “Sexy Baby Voice” chapter will recognize three particular features of salesclerk’s voice: bright resonance, creaky voice, legato articulation. The Loudermilk scene could have been inspired by the scenes about “sexy baby voice” in Lake Bell’s 2013 film about the voice-over industry, In a World…

Loudermilk mocks the salesclerk’s creaky voice by using creaky voice in his own responses, and the salesclerk asks “why are you talking like that?” Loudermilk responds, “This is my voice,” and she says, “No, it’s not.” After mocking her voice more and ranting a bit, he says, “just stop doing that.” Her response mirrors the earlier exchange: “I can’t help it, this is my voice,” to which he responds, “No, it’s not.”

As Loudermilk receives his coffee and leaves, the salesclerk, infuriated by his abuse, shouts at his back, “You’re a total dick!” Surprise! She doesn’t use legato articulation or creaky voice – because it’s really fucking hard to shout with either of those features. He turns back and says, “There, there you go, you’re talking!” as though she’d proven his point.

Loudermilk’s insistence that the salesclerk’s use of creaky voice is not “your voice” echoes a deleted scene from In a World… that Lake Bell includes in the audiobook chapter. In the scene, Bell’s character conducts “a vocal experiment” on another character who habitually uses “sexy baby voice.” She asks the other character to count to ten, alternating “the lowest point in your register” (i.e. with dark resonance) on odd numbers with “the highest point in your register” (bright resonance) on even numbers, and then say “Here’s my voice.”

Of course, “Here’s my voice” is the eleventh utterance in the sequence. As an odd-numbered utterance, Bell’s character pronounces it with relatively dark resonance, and the other character follows suit. As with the Loudermilk scene, we’re meant to marvel at the transformation: this woman’s True Voice, stripped of all that sexy baby junk! The message of both scenes is the same: that “sexy baby voice” is fake and women only use it because they’re insecure, but maybe they can be tricked into experiencing the power of their True Voices.

I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the deleted scene with the “vocal experiment,” the first thing I thought of was Elizabeth Holmes, the business executive who is currently in prison for selling a fake technology to investors. In addition to amassing wealth and power through lies and hype, Holmes is famous for having an unusually low voice for a woman – not just dark resonances, but when she speaks publicly, her fundamental frequency is in the range more typically used by American men.

During the height of Holmes’s success, several people felt that her claims were too good to be true, and they suspected her voice of being fake too. When recordings surfaced of Holmes speaking in a more typical pitch range for an American woman, that was presented as casting doubt on her honesty in general. Is her voice as big a fraud as her company?

I’ll have more to say about the notion of “your voice” and what it means to accuse someone of habitually using a fake voice, but astute observers may note that this double bind – don’t talk too “high-pitched,” but don’t talk too low-pitched either! – is an echo to the double-binds put on women in all kinds of areas – be assertive but not bossy! be attractive but not slutty!

Slurring sexy babies

Recently I’ve written a few posts in response to the notion of “sexy baby voice” in Lake Bell’s latest audiobook. Bell identifies “sexy baby voice” with three characteristic features: “high pitch” (which I argue is actually bright resonance), “vocal fry” (what phoneticians call creaky voice) and “slurring.” I’ve argued that while bright resonance can be controlled to some degree, it is characteristic of youth and femininity, and that creaky voice is the only way that some young woman can add darker resonance (and hence a bit of gravitas) without sounding tomboyish or fussy.

I wanted to write a quick post about Bell’s third criterion, “slurring,” which Gladwell summaries as “running some words together,” and “sentences without spaces.” Bell’s caricature of slurring gets to the point where she sounds like she’s doing an impression of a drunk sorority girl, but in moderation this is a well-documented pattern of speech variation: some people are noted for short, quick transitions from one speech segment to the next and from one intonational pitch to the next, known as “staccato” articulation, while others take these transitions more gradually, designated by the Italian word “legato.”

Guess what the legato vs. staccato articulation patterns are associated with? Gender. I learned it from my voice teachers, Kristy Bissell and Erin Carney, as part of lessons on developing gender expression in the voice. I’m not familiar with research on this in phonetics, if any has been done.

Basically, staccato articulation is stereotypically associated with men barking orders, while legato articulation is associated with women discussing things in soft, flowing ways. Yes, these are stereotypes, and we can all think of women who bark orders and men with soft, legato articulation. But those women are perceived as acting masculine when they speak with staccato articulation, and men speaking legato are perceived as speaking in feminine ways.

It’s understandable why the use of legato articulation bothers Lake Bell so much: it’s the antithesis of a particular voice-over style that she admires. In her chapter she includes an audio clip of a film she made in 2013, In a World… Before listening to this chapter I had never heard of her or the film, but I discovered that it was seen by a fairly large number of people, and generally well appreciated. That film introduced the general public to her idea of “sexy baby voice,” and was discussed by Mark Liberman in a series of LanguageLog posts.

The name of the film references the famous phrase “In a world…” used in voice-over tracks to introduce trailers for science-fiction action films. In the film, Bell’s character is competing to be the first woman to voice these kinds of macho trailers. The thesis of the film is that women are just as capable as men of delivering this punchy, aggressive style of speech, and are being held back from that success by what else? “Sexy baby voice.”

Even without going to the hypermasculine extent of action film voice-overs, Bell is implicitly endorsing the management-consultant approach to voice and gender that treats any bias against women’s speech as evidence of a deficiency in the women’s speech itself, a deficiency that can be remedied with enough courses in proper speaking. This is extensively debunked by linguists like Deborah Cameron and Lisa Davidson in articles that I linked from previous posts.

So there we have the three features of “sexy baby voice”: bright resonance, which is an indicator of youth and femininity; creaky voice, which is one of a handful of strategies available to young women to darken their resonance, and legato articulation, which is also an indicator of femininity. If we find this in women who are actually young, it basically means that they want to get away from girlish voices without sounding like tomboys or fussy older women. Judging young women for this strikes me as unfair and mean-spirited.

I have to point out, however, that young women are not the main target of Bell’s “sexy baby voice” tirades. Her ire is directed at older women who, she argues, have other ways of accessing dark resonance but use bright resonance with creaky voice anyway. I’ll address that in another post!

Youth, authority, gender and creaky voice

Recently I’ve written two posts about bright resonance in response to Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter, “Sexy Baby Voice.” Bell describes “sexy baby voice” as having three characteristic features: “high pitch”, “vocal fry” and “slurring.” My first post supported Byron Ahn’s analysis that found that Bell’s “sexy baby voice” samples didn’t have reliably higher pitch than the non-“sexy baby voice” samples, and suggested that she’s probably talking about bright resonance. My second post drew on phonetic and pedagogical research to confirm Bell’s claim that while resonance is constrained by the size and shape of our vocal tracts, it can be consciously controlled to a certain degree.

In this post I want to connect bright resonance (what Bell calls “high pitch”) with creaky voice (“vocal fry”). The original reason they’re used together is youth.

Bell’s argument is that “sexy baby voice” keeps women from being taken seriously, so let’s imagine a young woman who wants to be taken seriously when she talks. Let’s say it’s 1990, and this woman is named Heather, and she has important things to say, whether it’s in a speech or in conversation. And importantly for our purposes, Heather is trendy and feminine.

On some level Heather is aware that dark resonance adds gravitas to speech. But she’s young, she’s petite, she hasn’t given birth and she doesn’t smoke, so she has a relatively short vocal tract and thin vocal folds. This means that without using any of the vocal habits I described in my last post, Heather’s voice will sound girlish, and will risk being prejudged as immature and unserious.

Heather may try some of those habits and find them wanting. She’s already avoiding twang and nasal resonance, which would make her voice sound even brighter. She could try rounding and protruding her lips and using the furthest-back tongue articulations, the time-honored strategy of boys and tomboys. But here’s the thing: she doesn’t want to sound too masculine. She wants to be feminine, but taken seriously. And maybe even sexy.

Another strategy, lowering the larynx, also clashes with the style she wants. It sounds too formal, too grand dame, too fussy. Not at all trendy or stylish.

Let’s imagine that after trying all these strategies, Heather’s a little tired and resigned. She relaxes her voice and it drops into creak. And it doesn’t sound fussy or tomboyish, but it has dark resonance. Maybe it even sounds a bit fashionably blasé!

And from a completely personal view, I just want to say that I do find creaky voice adds a bit of gravitas, and it can be very sexy. When I hear a woman with creaky voice combined with bright overtones, I get an impression of smallness in bigness. I think of creaky voice as the oversize sweater, boyfriend shirt or even mom jeans of the voice.

So Heather starts using creak whenever she wants to be taken seriously. And because she’s trendy, other young women imitate her. Heather is Creaker Zero of late twentieth century “vocal fry.”

Is that the way it actually happened? I have no idea. But it’s a possible scenario. And the scorn that’s been heaped on “vocal fry” over the past thirty plus years has been a potent example of the double bind that women are placed in so many times. Not enough dark resonance? Girlish. Rounded lips? Transgressing gender. Lowered larynx? Fussy. Creaky voice? You’re destroying your voice!

A lot of the politics of women’s voices has been covered by linguists I respect and admire, so for most of this I’ll just refer you to the responses of Deborah Cameron, Penny Eckert and Lisa Davidson to the 2015 “vocal fry” panic, and radio producer Katie Mingle’s all-purpose response to criticism of women’s voices.

This is one area where Malcolm Gladwell failed in this chapter. Gladwell is the producer of Bell’s audiobook and a friend of Bell, and in the chapter she turns to him for feedback. His biggest strength is the ability to find experts and present their ideas in ways that engage a broader audience, but in this chapter he doesn’t talk to Cameron, Eckert, Davidson or even Mingle. He just sits there and gives his own opinions, even conflating “high pitch” with “uptalk.” In his defense, it is possible that he tried to refer Bell to experts, but we don’t hear about it.

Controlling the brightness of the voice

A few weeks ago I posted about “Sexy baby voice,” the topic of a chapter in Lake Bell’s audiobook about the culture and politics of voices. Bell identified three characteristics of “sexy baby voice” in women: high pitch, “vocal fry” (creaky voice) and “slurring.”

In phonetics, “pitch” is generally understood to refer to the fundamental frequency of the speech signal, but on Twitter the phonetician Byron Ahn posted the results of a computer analysis of some of the examples Bell gave for “high pitch” and pointed out that their fundamental frequencies weren’t much higher than the examples she gave for “normal” speech. In my post, I suggested that Bell is probably referring to the frequencies of harmonics in the speech, also called “resonance” or “formants.” It sounds like the most salient feature of “sexy baby voice” is bright resonance.

As I discussed in my post, bright resonance is generally associated with youth and femininity, because it’s usually caused by small vocal folds in small vocal tracts, and women and children tend to be smaller and have smaller vocal folds. Even younger women tend to have brighter resonance than older women, primarily because of the affect of hormonal changes during childbirth and menopause.

Of course, as Bell demonstrates repeatedly in her chapter, bright resonance can also be controlled, either consciously in the moment or subconsciously through habit and training. I’ve learned about these ways over the years, as a linguistics doctoral student, as a transgender woman and as an amateur singer. I’ll go through all the ways I know to do this.

Diagram of the vocal tract produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and distributed by Wikimedia Commons.

As with the previous post in this series, my knowledge comes from training, not reading, so I don’t know who to credit for figuring all this out about the vocal tract. For now I will credit my primary teachers: the vocal coaches Kristy Bissell and Erin Carney, and the phoneticians Jacques Filliolet, Karen Landahl, Alex Francis and Doug Honorof.

For people who haven’t studied the anatomy of the vocal tract, this will get a little technical. In this blog post I’m going to use all the technical language, but if there’s a particular area that you feel could use more explanation for a general audience, please let me know.

Let’s start with the larynx and move through the vocal tract with the breath. The vocal folds generate sound through their vibration. When closing completely they generate a relatively coherent sound wave, but they can add dark resonance by maintaining gaps of particular sizes to allow low-frequency vibrations, what we call creaky voice or “vocal fry.” Similarly, they can add bright resonance by allowing turbulent air to flow through, causing breathy voice.

Just above the larynx is a tube called the pharynx. We can add bright resonance by constricting the pharynx, a practice that vocal coaches call “twang.” The name confused me for a while, because I associate the word “twang” with the Southern vowel shift, but in this case it refers to the narrowing of the pharynx.

The velum is a flap of muscle that we open to allow air to flow through the nose. When we allow air to flow through the nose and mouth at the same time it produces nasal resonance, which adds brighter resonance.

We use our tongues to produce consonants and vowels, raising a part of the tongue towards the roof of our mouths, so a /d/ sound is formed by touching the front of the mouth, and a /g/ sound by touching further back. For each of these sounds there is a range of positions along the roof of our mouth. When we raise our tongues further forward within the range for that sound, we generate brighter resonance. We can also generate bright resonance by flattening the tongue, allowing it to be raised higher. There is extensive research showing that women and gay men tend to have brighter resonance on their /s/ phonemes, and that people who make brighter /s/ sounds tend to be heard as women or gay men, even if they aren’t.

The lips are the gates that release our voices to the air outside. Rounded and protruded lips can produce darker resonance, and spread lips (in a smile or similar shape) can produce lighter resonance. I remember hearing about a study showing that even before puberty, boys tend to round their lips to sound more masculine.

One thing that makes this confusing is that all these vocal tract configurations have other functions. Creaky voice can be a sign of fatigue. Breathy voice can be a sign of relaxation. Pharyngeal constriction, nasal resonance, place of articulation and lip rounding can each change one word into another word with a completely different meaning, in Arabic, French, English and other languages.

These articulations can also interact with each other and with the fundamental frequency of the voice in different ways. At low frequencies, breathy voice can sound sympathetic or sexy, but at high frequencies it can sound weak and vulnerable. This may be what you want to project, or it may not. Nasal resonance and pharyngeal constriction can sound forced or strident, obnoxious or insensitive.

The bottom line is that these aspects of the voice are all under some degree of conscious control. How much control a speaker has, and how conscious they are, depends on a lot of factors, but the takeaway for Bell’s chapter is that people with smaller vocal tracts can use these techniques to speak with darker resonance than they would without them, and people with larger vocal tracts can use them to speak with brighter resonance than they otherwise would.

Note that I’m using the term “otherwise.” The terms I want to avoid, for this post at least, are “natural,” “authentic,” “real” and “your/my/their voice.” The tension between biological constraints, habit and conscious control is what makes resonance so fraught, politically, culturally and socially, which is why Bell and others have such intense feelings about it. That’s for another post.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 20: Actress and model Paris Hilton speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol October 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congressional Democrats held a news conference with Hilton to discuss child abuse and legislation to establish a “bill of rights” to protect children placed in congregate care facilities. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Listen to the voices of the sexy babies

A few days ago, Byron Ahn drew our attention to an excerpt from a new, six-hour audiobook, Inside Voice by Lake Bell, credited as an “actress/writer/director/producer.” Bell is a friend of author and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell, and Gladwell agreed to serve as a kind of sounding board for Bell’s ideas about something she calls “sexy baby voice,” pointing to the voices of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian as paradigm examples of it. Gladwell, whose company is publishing Inside Voice, also published this excerpt as a free bonus episode of his podcast Revisionist History, which I listen to regularly, although I’m almost two years behind.

Bell argues for a few points: that what she calls “sexy baby voice” is a distinct speech style with specific audible features, that it is particularly inauthentic (she claims several times that it requires effort to speak that way, and describes a coaching technique for helping women to find their “true” voices) and that it makes them sound stupider than Bell knows them to be. She repeatedly assures us that she is not passing judgment, and then uses extremely judgmental language to describe “sexy baby voice,” which I interpret as an application of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Ahn posted a series of Twitter threads about the excerpt. He notes that it’s problematic for Bell to criticize women as a self-identified feminist, but he focuses on the terminology that she uses to describe the features of “sexy baby voice,” particularly the word “pitch.” He concludes, “we should encourage public figures talking about voices to consult linguists who have the training.”

I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about this excerpt and Bell’s idea of “sexy baby voice.” I could probably write several blog posts on the practical, cultural and social angles to this. For this post I’m going to keep with Ahn’s focus on what “sexy baby voice” is, phonetically. I sketched some of this out on Ahn’s Twitter thread, and I’ll synthesize and expand that here.

Bell says that the primary feature that defines “sexy baby voice” is “pitch,” and as linguists, we’re trained to interpret “pitch” as the fundamental frequency of the voice – essentially, the lowest pitch produced by the voice at any given time. I’ve been taking singing lessons, and all the singers and singing teachers I’ve talked to use “pitch” in the same way.

Ahn introduces his discussion of the “sexy baby voice” excerpt with a graph of the fundamental frequency of a segment of the recording – throughout the excerpt, Bell uses her own voice to demonstrate the “sexy baby voice” style, even though she says she does not use it in everyday conversation. In the graph he posts, the floor and ceiling of Bell’s fundamental frequency range are not particularly higher when she is using “sexy baby voice” than at other times.

Bell mentions two other factors: “vocal fry” (the linguistic term is “creaky voice”) and “slurring” speech. Ahn speculates that she may be picking up on other factors as well, like “SoCal vowels” or laryngeal constriction. He also acknowledges that “pitch” may refer to other pitch-related features besides fundamental frequency range, such as “uptalk,” a pattern of rising in fundamental frequency at the ends of phrases. Gladwell uses the word “uptalk” when echoing Bell’s explanations, but it’s not clear that he’s referring to phrase-final pitch rise.

So here’s where I come in: my gender expression is fluid, so I’ve been studying differences in vocal quality. When I listen to the samples in the chapter of “sexy baby voice” and … not-sexy-baby-voice (that’s for another post!) given by Bell, both in recordings and her own mimicry, I hear some creaky voice (“vocal fry”), but the main difference I hear is resonance.

This section is going to be a bit of a departure from my normal linguistics blogging, because I have not studied any of the literature on this. My understanding of it comes from practical training, so I don’t know who to cite or credit for any of this besides my teachers, Kristy Bissell and Erin Carney.  Of course, any inaccuracies are most likely due to my misunderstanding of what they’ve tried to teach me!

Resonance is about the pitch of speech, but it’s not about the fundamental frequency. It’s about everything else: the harmonics that result from the way the tones from our vocal folds echo around our bodies and are filtered through different parts of our vocal tracts and nasal passages. Just as plucking a string on an acoustic guitar produces overtones from the guitar body, whenever we arrange our vocal folds to talk or sing we produce overtones: higher pitched frequencies that can harmonize or clash with the fundamental frequency.

There are a ton of things you can do with resonance and it can get really complicated, so let’s focus on the primary resonance difference I’m hearing between Lake Bell’s “sexy baby voice” and the other examples. To me, the “sexy baby voice” examples sound brighter.

Bright and dark are useful terms to evoke the quality of resonance while distinguishing it from fundamental frequency. Bright sounds are ones where we hear more of the higher-pitched harmonics, while in dark sounds the lower harmonics dominate.

As I’ve learned from my teachers, and as Bell demonstrates, there’s a lot we can do with our voices to shift the balance of harmonics towards light or dark, but a substantial part of resonance comes form the structure of our bones, cartilage, muscles and fat. Higher-pitched harmonics tend to come from shorter vocal tracts, smaller nasal cavities, and in general, from smaller bodies. As a result, the voices of smaller people tend to sound brighter.

Testosterone during the teenage years also changes the configuration of our vocal tracts: thickening the vocal folds, making the larynx larger and shifting it lower in the throat. This is why men’s and trans women’s voices tend to sound darker than those of women, girls and prepubescent boys, even when singing the same pitch.

Bodies that see an increase in testosterone after puberty do not get larger or lower larynxes, but do tend to develop thicker vocal folds. This is why many trans men’s voices change, but often sound different from typical men’s voices. It is also, as Bell mentions, why women’s voices often change when they give birth or go through menopause.

As you might have guessed, this is where the “baby” in “sexy baby voice” comes from. Children are smaller than adults and tend to have brighter resonances. It’s also why Bell sees “sexy baby voice” as an exaggerated expression of femininity: women tend to be smaller than men and therefore have brighter voices. Women who haven’t given birth or gone through menopause tend to have brighter voices. Bright resonance suggests youth, femininity and immaturity.

As I mentioned above, there are several things that people can do, consciously or unconsciously, to shift their resonances, and I want to talk about them. I would also love to get into a discussion of the sociopolitical issues that Bell identifies around “sexy baby voice” and women’s voices in general. But this is already pretty long for a blog post, so I’ll save those for another time.

The gesture location symbols of Stokoe notation, mapped onto a chart of the upper torso, arm and head

Teaching intro sign phonetics

A few years ago I wrote about incorporating sign linguistics when I taught Introduction to Linguistics at Saint John’s University. The other course I taught most often was Introduction to Phonology. This course was required for our majors in Speech Pathology and Audiology, and they often filled up the class. I never had a Deaf student, but almost all of my students expressed some level of interest in signed languages, and many had taken several semesters of American Sign Language.

The texts I used tended to devote a chapter to sign linguistics here or there, but not present it systematically or include it in general discussions. I always included those chapters, and any mention of signed languages was received enthusiastically by my students, so having a love of sign linguistics myself, I was happy to teach more.

The first thing I did was to add sign phonetics. I had previously found that I needed to start Introduction to Phonology with a comprehensive review of spoken phonetics, so I just followed that with a section on the systematic description of hand, face and upper body gestures. A lot of the spoken phonetics review was focused on phonetic transcription, and the students needed some way to keep track of the gestures they were studying, so I taught them Stokoe notation.

A list of Stokoe handshape symbols, with corresponding illustrations of the handshapes

Some of you may be remembering negative things you’ve read, or heard, or said, about Stokoe notation. It’s not perfect. But it’s granular enough for an intro phonology course, and it’s straightforward and relatively transparent. My students had no problem with it. Remember that the appropriate level of granularity depends on what you’re trying to communicate about the language.

The orientation and movement symbols from Stokoe notation, mapped onto a chart depicting the right side of a human head and attached right shoulder

I developed charts for the Stokoe symbols for locations, orientations and movements (“tab” and “sig” in Stokoe’s terminology), corresponding to the vowel quadrilateral charts developed by Pierre Delattre and others for spoken languages. To create the charts I used the StokoeTempo font that I developed back in 1995.

A list of additional movements of ASL and their symbols in Stokoe notation

The next step was to find data for students to analyze. I instructed my students to watch videos of jokes in American Sign Language posted to YouTube and Facebook by two Deaf storytellers and ASL teachers, Greg “NorthTrue” Eyben and Joseph Wheeler.

Deaf YouTuber NorthTrue makes the ASL sign for “mail”

The first exercise I gave my students was a scavenger hunt. I had previously found them to be useful in studying spoken language features at all levels of analysis. Here is a list of items I asked my students to find in one two-minute video:

  • A lexical sign
  • A point
  • A gesture depicting movement or location
  • An iconic gesture miming a person’s hand movement
  • A nonmanual miming a person’s emotion
  • A grammatical nonmanual indicating question, role shifting or topic

The students did well on the exercises, whether in class, for homework or for exams. Unfortunately that was pretty much all that I was able to develop during the years I taught Introduction to Phonology.

There is one more exercise I created using sign phonology; I will write about that in a future post.

How to set up your own LanguageLab

I’ve got great news! I have now released LanguageLab, my free, open-source software for learning languages and music, to the public on GitHub.

I wish I could tell you I’ve got a public site up that you can all use for free. Unfortunately, the features that would make LanguageLab easy for multiple users to share one server are later in the roadmap. There are a few other issues that also stand in the way of a massive public service. But you can set up your own server!

I’ve documented the steps in the README file, but here’s an overview. You don’t need to know how to program, but you will need to know how to set up web services, retrieve files from GitHub, edit configuration files, and run a few commands at a Linux/MacOS/DOS prompt.

LanguageLab uses Django, one of the most popular web frameworks for Python, and React, one of the most popular frameworks for Javascript. All you need is a server that can run Django and host some Javascript files! I’ve been doing my development and testing on Pythonanywhere, but I’ve also set it up on Amazon Web Services, and you should be able to run it on Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, a University web server or even your personal computer.

There are guides online for setting up Django in all those environments. Once you’ve got a basic Django setup installed, you’ll need to clone the LanguageLab repo from GitHub to a place where it can be read by your web server. Then you’ll configure it to access the database, and configure the web server to load it. You’ll use Pip and NPM to download the Python and Javascript libraries you need, like the Django REST Framework, React and the Open Iconic font. Finally, you’ll copy all the files into the right places for the web server to read them and restart the server.

Once you’ve got everything in place, you should be able to log in! You can make multiple accounts, but keep in mind that at this point we do not have account-level access, so all accounts have full access to all the data. You can then start building your library of languages, media, exercises and lessons. LanguageLab comes with the most widely used languages, but it’s easy to set up new ones if yours are not on the list.

Media can be a bit tricky, because LanguageLab is not a media server. You can upload your media to another place on your server, or any other server – as long as it’s got an HTTPS URL you should be able to use it. If the media you’re using is copyrighted you may want to set up some basic password protection to avoid any accusations of piracy. I use a simple .htaccess password. I have to log in every time, but it works.

With the URL of your media file, you can create a media entry. Just paste that URL into the form and add metadata to keep track of the file and what it can be used for. You can then set up one or more exercises based on particular segments of that media file. It may take a little trial and error to get the exercises right.

You can then create one or more lessons to organize your exercises. You can choose to have a lesson for all the exercises in a particular media file, or you can combine exercises from multiple media files in a lesson. It’s up to you how to organize the lessons. You can edit the queues for each lesson to reorder or remove exercises.

Once you’ve got exercises, you can start practicing! The principle is simple: listen to the model, repeat into the microphone, then listen to the model again, followed by your recording. Set yourself a goal of a.certain number of repetitions per session.

After you’ve created your language and media entries, exercises and lessons, you can export the data. Importing the data is not yet implemented, but the data is exported to a human-readable JSON format that you can then recreate if necessary.

In the near future I will go on Twitch to demonstrate how to set up exercises and lessons, and how to practice with them. I will also try to find time to demonstrate the installation process. I will record each demonstration and put it on YouTube for your future reference. You can follow me on Twitter to find out when I’m doing the demos and posting the videos.

If you try setting up a LanguageLab, please let me know how it goes! You can report bugs by creating incidents on GitHub, or you can send me an email. I’m happy to hear about problems, but I’d also like to hear success stories! And if you know some Python or Javascript, please consider writing a little code to help me add one of the features in the roadmap!

A free, open source language lab app

Viewers of the Crown may have noticed a brief scene where Prince Charles practices Welsh by sitting in a glass cubicle wearing a headset.  Some viewers may recognize that as a language lab. Some may have even used language labs themselves.

The core of the language lab technique is language drills, which are based on the bedrock of all skills training: mimicry, feedback and repetition.  An instructor can identify areas for the learner to focus on.

Because it’s hard for us to hear our own speech, the instructor also can observe things in the learner’s voice that the learner may not perceive.  Recording technology enabled the learner to take on some of the role of observer more directly.

When I used a language lab to learn Portuguese in college, it ran on cassette tapes.  The lab station played the model (I can still remember “Elena, estudante francesa, vai passar as ferias em Portugal…“), then it recorded my attempted mimicry onto a blank cassette.  Once I was done recording it played back the model, followed by my own recording.

Hearing my voice repeated back to me after the model helped me judge for myself how well I had mimicked the model.  It wasn’t enough by itself, so the lab instructor had a master station where he could listen in on any of us and provide additional feedback.  We also had classroom lessons with an instructor, and weekly lectures on culture and grammar.

There are several companies that have brought language lab technology into the digital age, on CD-ROM and then over the internet.  Many online language learning providers rely on proprietary software and closed platforms to generate revenue, which is fine for them but doesn’t allow teachers the flexibility to add new language varieties.

People have petitioned these language learning companies to offer new languages, but developing offerings for a new language is expensive.  If a language has a small user base it may never generate enough revenue to offset the cost of developing the lessons.  It would effectively be a donation to people who want to promote these languages, and these companies are for profit entities.

Duolingo has offered a work-around to this closed system: they will accept materials developed by volunteers according to their specifications and freely donated.  Anyone who remembers the Internet Movie Database before it was sold to Amazon can identify the problems with this arrangement: what happens to those submissions if Duolingo goes bankrupt, or simply decides not to support them anymore?

Closed systems raise another issue: who decides what it means to learn French, or Hindi?  This has been discussed in the context of Duolingo, which chose to teach the artificial Modern Standard Arabic rather than a colloquial dialect or the classical language of the Qur’an.  Similarly, activists for the Hawai’ian language wanted the company to focus on lessons to encourage Hawai’ians to speak the language, rather than tourists who might visit for a few weeks at most.

Years ago I realized that we could make a free, open-source language lab application.  It wouldn’t have to replicate all the features of the commercial apps, especially not initially.  An app would be valuable if it offers the basic language lab functionality: play a model, record the learner’s mimicry, play the model again and finally play the recording of the learner.

An open system would be able to use any recording that the device can play.  This would allow learners to choose the models they practice with, or allow an instructor to choose models for their students.  The lessons don’t have to be professionally produced.  They can be created for a single student, or even for a single occasion.  I am not a lawyer, but I believe they can even use copyrighted materials.

I have created a language lab app using the Django Rest Framework and ReactJS that provides basic language lab functionality.  It runs in a web browser using responsive layout, and I have successfully tested it in Chrome and Firefox, on Windows and Android.

This openness and flexibility drastically reduces the cost of producing a lesson.  The initial code can be installed in an hour, on any server that can host Django.  The monthly cost of hosting code and media can be under $25.  Once this is set up, a media item and several exercises based on it can be added in five minutes.

This reduced cost means that a language does not have to bring in enough learners to recoup a heavy investment.  That in turn means that teachers can create lessons for every dialect of Arabic, or in fact for every dialect of English.  They can create Hawai’ian lessons for both tourists and heritage speakers.  They could even create lessons for actors to learn dialects, or master impressions of celebrities.

As a transgender person I’ve long been interested in developing a feminine voice to match my feminine visual image.  Gender differences in language include voice quality, pitch contour, rhythm and word choice – areas that can only be changed through experience.  I have used the alpha and beta versions of my app to create exercises for practicing these differences.

Another area where it helps a learner to hear a recording of their own voice is singing.  This could be used by professional singers or amateurs.  It could even be used for instrument practice.  I use it to improve my karaoke!

This week I was proud to present my work at the QueensJS meetup.  My slides from that talk contain more technical details about how to record audio through the web browser.  I’ll be pushing my source to GitHub soon. You can read more details about how to set up and use LanguageLab.  In the meantime, if you’d like to contribute, or to help with beta testing, please get in touch!

Angus Grieve-Smith wears a mask of his own design, featuring IPA vowel quadrilaterals on each cheek

Show your vowels and support Doctors Without Borders!

I’m very excited about a new face mask I designed.  You can order it online!

I was inspired by two tweets I saw within minutes of each other on July Fourth.  First, Médéric Gasquet-Cyrus, a professor at Aix-Marseille, posted a picture of  his colleague Pascal Roméas wearing a “triangle vocalique” T-shirt designed by the linguistics YouTuber Romain Filstroff, known as Linguisticae. Gasquet-Cyrus’s tweet translates to “When you eat out with a phonetician colleague, you get a chance to practice your vowel quadrilateral!”

The vowel quadrilateral is one of the great data visualizations of linguistics: a two-dimensional diagram of the tongue height and position assigned to the vowel symbols of the Interneational Phonetic Alphabet, as viewed from the left side of the face.   It is also known as the vowel triangle, depending on how much wiggle room you think people have for their tongues when their mouths are fully open.  It can even be plotted based on the formant frequencies extracted from acoustic analysis.

The second was a tweet by Emily Bender, a professor at the University of Washington, about face masks with a random grid of IPA symbols on them.  These are designed by the Lingthusiasm podcast team of author Gretchen McCulloch and professor Lauren Gawne, using the same pattern as in their popular IPA scarves.

Seeing the two pictures one after the other, I realized that rather than a random grid, I could put a vowel quadrilateral on an IPA mask.  Then I realized that if I placed the quadrilateral on one side, I could get it to line up with the wearer’s mouth.  I also had to make a corresponding chart for the right side.

I decided that I wanted the money to go to a charity that was helping with COVID-19.  Doctors Without Borders has been doing good work around the world for years, and with COVID they’ve really stepped up.  Here in New York they provided support to several local organizations and operated two shower trailers in Manhattan at the height of the outbreak.

From July 16 through 29, and then from November 27 through December 28, I ran a fundraiser through Custom Ink where we raised $430 in profits for Doctors Without Borders, and masks were sent to 32 supporters.

There’s another way to get masks!  I have made a slightly different mask design available at  You can even get a mug or a phone case.  This is the same store where I’ve been selling Existential Black Swan T-shirts for years.  You can get a mask with the swan on it, if that’s your style.  None of these part of a fundraiser, but you can still donate directly to Doctors Without Borders!

Update, February 1, 2021: There are more virulent strains of COVID spreading, so medical experts are recommending that people wear three-layer masks, or wear a single or double layer mask over a disposable surgical mask.  You should know that the white-on-black Custom Ink masks sold in the fundraisers in 2020 are single layer, and the RedBubble masks sold in 2020 are double layer.  They can both be worn over surgical masks.  Both services are now offering triple-layer masks, so I’ve updated the RedBubble links to the three-layer masks, and will use three-layer masks for any future fundraisers.  Stay safe, everyone!