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.

Teaching language variation with accent tag videos

Last January I wrote that the purpose of phonetic transcription is to talk about differences in pronunciation. Last December I introduced accent tags, a fascinating genre of self-produced YouTube videos of crowdsourced dialectology and a great source of data about language variation. I put these together when I was teaching a unit on language variation for the second-semester Survey of Linguistics course at Saint John’s University. When I learned about language variation as an undergraduate, it was exciting to see accents as a legitimate object of study, and it was gratifying to see my family’s accents taken seriously.

At the same time, the focus on a single dialect at a time contrasts with the absence of variation from the discussion of English pronunciation, grammar and lexis in other units, and in the rest of the way English is typically taught. This implies that there is a single standard that does not vary, despite evidence from perceptual dialectology (such as Dennis Preston’s work) that language norms are fragmentary, incomplete and contested. I saw the cumulative effects of this devaluation in class discussions, when students openly denigrated features of the New York accents spoken by their neighbors, their families and often the students themselves.

At first I just wanted to illustrate variation in African American accents, but then I realized that the accent tags allowed me to set up the exercises as an explicit contrast between two varieties. I asked my students to search YouTube to find an accent tag that “sounds like you,” and one that sounded different, and to find differences between the two in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. I followed up on this exercise with other ones asking students to compare two accent tags from the same place but with different ethnic, economic or gender backgrounds.

My students did a great job at finding videos that sounded like them. Most of them were from the New York area, and were able to find accent tags made by people from New York City, Long Island or northern New Jersey. Some students were African American or Latin American, and were able to find videos that demonstrated the accents, vocabulary and grammar common among those groups. The rest of the New York students did not have any features that we noticed as ethnic markers, and whether the students were Indian, Irish or Circassian, they were satisfied that the Italian or Jewish speakers in the videos sounded pretty much like them.

Some of the students were from other parts of the country, and found accent tags from California or Boston that illustrated features that the students shared. A student from Zimbabwe who is bilingual in English and Shona was not able to find any accent tags from her country, but she found a video made by a white South African and was able to identify features of English pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar that they shared.

As I wrote last year, the phonetic transcription exercises I had done in introductory linguistics and phonology courses were difficult because they implicitly referred to unspecified standard pronunciations, leading to confusion among the students about the “right” transcriptions. In the variation unit, when I framed the exercise as an explicit comparison between something that “sounds like you” and something different, I removed the implied value judgment and replaced it with a neutral investigation of difference.

I found that this exercise was easier for the students than the standard transcription problems, because it gave them two recordings to compare instead of asking them to compare one recording against their imagination of the “correct” or “neutral” pronunciation. I realized that this could be used for the regular phonetics units as well. I’ll talk about my experiences with that in a future post.

African American English has accents too

Diversity is notoriously subjective and difficult to pin down. In particular, we tend be impressed if we know the names of a lot of categories for something. We might think there are more mammal species than insect species, but biologists tell us that there are hundreds of thousands of species of beetles alone. This is true in language as well: we think of the closely-related Romance and Germanic languages as separate, while missing the incredible diversity of “dialects” of Chinese or Arabic.

This is also true of English. As an undergraduate I was taught that there were four dialects in American English: New England, North Midland, South Midland and Coastal Southern. Oh yeah, and New York and Black English. The picture for all of those is more complicated than it sounds, and I went to Chicago I discovered that there are regional varieties of African American English.

In 2012 Annie Minoff, a blogger for Chicago public radio station WBEZ, took this oversimplification for truth: “AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas; that is, Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc.” Fortunately a commenter, Amanda Hope, challenged her on that assertion. Minoff confirmed the pattern in an interview with variationist Walt Wolfram, and posted a correction in 2013.

In 2013 I was preparing to teach a unit on language variation and didn’t want to leave my students as misinformed as I – or Minoff – had been. Many of my students were African American, and I saw no reason to spend most of the unit on white varieties and leave African American English as a footnote. But the documentation is spotty: I know of no good undergraduate-level discussion of variation in African American English.

A few years before I had found a video that some guy took of a party in a parking lot on the West Side of Chicago. It wasn’t ideal, but it sort of gave you an idea. The link was dead, so I typed “Chicago West Side” into Google. The results were not promising, so on a whim I added “accent” and that’s how I found my first accent tag video.

Accent tag videos are an amazing thing, and I could write a whole series of posts about them. Here was a young black woman from Chicago’s West Side, not only talking about her accent but illustrating it, with words and phrases to highlight its differences from other dialects. She even talks (as many people do in these videos) about how other African Americans hear her accent in other places, like North Carolina. You can compare it (as I did in class) with a similar video made by a young black woman from Raleigh (or New York or California), and the differences are impossible to ignore.

In fact, when Amanda Hope challenged Minoff’s received wisdom on African American regional variation, she used accent tag videos to illustrate her point. These videos are amazing, particularly for teaching about language and linguistics, and from then on I made extensive use of them in my courses. There’s also a video made by two adorable young English women, one from London and one from Bolton near Manchester, where you can hear their accents contrasted in conversation. I like that I can go not just around the country but around the world (Nigeria, Trinidad, Jamaica) illustrating the diversity of English just among women of African descent, who often go unheard in these discussions. I’ll talk more about accent tag videos in future posts.

You can also find evidence of regional variation in African American English on Twitter. Taylor Jones has a great post about it that also goes into the history of African American varieties of English.

“Said” for 2016 Word of the Year

I just got back from the American Association for Corpus Linguistics conference in Ames, Iowa, and I’m calling the Word of the Year: for 2016 it will be said.

You may think you know said. It’s the past participle of say. You’ve said it yourself many times. What’s so special about it?

What’s special was revealed by Jordan Smith, a graduate student at Iowa State, in his presentation on Saturday afternoon. said is becoming a determiner. It is grammaticizing.

In addition to its participial use (“once the words were said”) you’ve probably seen said used as an attributive adjective (“the said property”). It indicates that the noun it modifies refers to a person, place or thing that has been mentioned recently, with the same noun, and that the speaker/writer expects it to be active in the hearer/reader’s memory.

Attributive said is strongly associated with legal documents, as in its first recorded use in the English Parliament in 1327. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that said was used outside of legal contexts as early as 1973, in the English sitcom Steptoe and Son. In this context it was clearly a joke: a word that evoked law courts used in a lower-class colloquial context.

Jordan Smith examined uses of said in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found that attributive said has increasingly been used without the for several years now, and outside the legal domain. He observes that syntactic changes and increased frequency have been named by linguists like Joan Bybee as harbingers of grammaticization.

Grammaticization (also known as grammaticalization; search for both) is when an ordinary lexical item (like a noun, verb or adjective, or even a phrase) becomes a grammatical item (like a pronoun, preposition or auxiliary verb). For example, while is a noun meaning a period of time, but it was grammaticized to a conjunction indicating simultaneity. Used is an adjective meaning accustomed, as in “I was used to being lonely,” but has also become part of an auxiliary indicating habitual aspect as in “I used to be lonely.”

Jordan is suggesting that said is no longer just a verb or even an adjective, it’s our newest determiner in English. Determiners are an exclusive club of short words that modify nouns. They include articles like an and the, but also demonstratives like these and quantifiers like several.

Noun phrases without a determiner tend to refer to generic categories, as I have been doing with phrases like legal documents and grammaticization. That is clearly not what is going on with said girlfriend. Noun phrases with said refer to a specific item or group of items, in some sense even more so than noun phrases with the.

Thanks to the wireless Internet at the AACL, I began searching for of said on Twitter, and found a ton of examples. There are plenty for in said examples as well.

It’s not just happening in English. The analogous French ledit is also used outside the legal domain. Its reanalysis is a bit different, since it incorporates the article rather than replacing it. Like most noun modifiers in French it is inflected for gender and number. I haven’t found anything similar for Spanish.

In 2013 the American Dialect Society chose because as its Word of the Year. Because is already a conjunction, having grammaticized from the noun cause, but it has been reanalyzed again into a preposition, as in because science. Some theorists consider this to be a further step in grammaticization. And here is a twenty-first century prepositional phrase for you, folks: because (P) said (Det) relationship (N).

After Jordan’s presentation it struck me that said is an excellent candidate for the 2016 Word of the year. And if the ADS isn’t interested, maybe another organization like the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, can sponsor a Grammaticization of the Year.

Printing differences and material issues in Google Books

I am looking forward to presenting my Digital Parisian Stage corpus and the exciting results I’ve gotten from it so far at the American Association for Corpus Linguistics at Iowa State in September. In the meantime I’m continuing to process texts, working towards a one percent sample from the Napoleonic period (Volume 1 of the Wicks catalog).

One of the plays in my sample is les Mœurs du jour, ou l’école des femmes, a comedy by Collin-Harleville (also known as Jean-François Collin d’Harleville). I ran the initial OCR on a PDF scanned for the Google Books project. For reasons that will become clear, I will refer to it by its Google Books ID, VyBaAAAAcAAJ. When I went to clean up the OCR text, I discovered that it was missing pages 2-6. I emailed the Google Books team about this, and got the following response:


I’m guessing “a material issue” means that those pages were missing from the original paper copy, but I didn’t even bother emailing until the other day, since I found another copy in the Google Books database, with the ID kVwxUp_LPIoC.

Comparing the OCR text of VyBaAAAAcAAJ with the PDF of kVwxUp_LPIoC, I discovered some differences in spelling. For example, throughout the text, words that end in the old fashioned spelling -ois or -oit in VyBaAAAAcAAJ are spelled with the more modern -ais in kVwxUp_LPIoC. There is also a difference in the way “Madame” is abbreviated (“Mad.” vs. ““) and in which accented letters preserve their accents when set in small caps, and differences in pagination. Here is the entirety of Act III, Scene X in each copy:


Act III, Scene X in copy VyBaAAAAcAAJ

Act III, Scene X in kVwxUp_LPIoC

Act III, Scene X in copy kVwxUp_LPIoC

My first impulse was to look at the front matter and see if the two copies were identified as different editions or different printings. Unfortunately, they were almost identical, with the most notable differences being that VyBaAAAAcAAJ has an œ ligature in the title, while kVwxUp_LPIoC is signed by the playwright and marked as being a personal gift from him to an unspecified recipient. Both copies give the exact same dates: the play was first performed on the 7th of Thermidor in year VIII and published in the same year (1800).

The Google Books metadata indicate that kVwxUp_LPIoC was digitized from the Lyon Public Library, while VyBaAAAAcAAJ came from the Public Library of the Netherlands. The other copies I have found in the Google Books database, OyL1oo2CqNIC from the National Library of Naples and dPRIAAAAcAAJ from Ghent University, appear to be the same printing as kVwxUp_LPIoC, as does the copy from the National Library of France.

Since the -ais and spellings are closer to the forms used in France today, we might expect that kVwxUp_LPIoC and its cousins are from a newer printing. But in Act II, Scene XI I came across a difference that concerns negation, the variable that I have been studying for many years. The decadent Parisians Monsieur Basset and Madame de Verdie question whether marriage should be eternal. Our hero Formont replies that he has no reason not to remain with his wife forever. In VyBaAAAAcAAJ he says, “je n’ai pas de raisons,” while in kVwxUp_LPIoC he says “je n’ai point de raisons.”

Act III, Scene XI (page 75) in VyBaAAAAcAAJ

Act III, Scene XI (page 75) in VyBaAAAAcAAJ

Act III, Scene XI (page 78) in kVwxUp_LPIoC

Act III, Scene XI (page 78) in kVwxUp_LPIoC

In my dissertation study I found that the relative use of ne … point had already peaked by the nineteenth century, and was being overtaken by ne … pas. If this play fits the pattern, the use of the more conservative pattern in kVwxUp_LPIoC goes against the more innovative -ais and spellings.

I am not an expert in French Revolutionary printing (if anyone knows a good reference or contact, please let me know!). My best guess is that kVwxUp_LPIoC is from a limited early run, some copies of which were given to the playwright to give away, while VyBaAAAAcAAJ and the other -ais/ … point copies are from a larger, slightly later, printing.

In any case, it is clear that I should pick one copy and make it consistent with that. Since VyBaAAAAcAAJ is incomplete, I will try dPRIAAAAcAAJ. I will try to double-check all the spellings and wordings, but at the very least I will check all of the examples of negation against dPRIAAAAcAAJ as I annotate them.