There’s been a recent flare-up in the debate over the policing of non-conforming voices. The two cases are vocal fry in women, and ‘gay speech’ – a sociolect common to a subset of Western males (who are not always homosexual as the research informs us).
The articles in question:
- Naomi Klein, The Guardian: “Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”
- Klein seems to argue that features such as uptalk, vocal fry, and run-on sentences are assigned to women in order to “tangle their steps and trivialise their important messages to the world”
- NPR Fresh Air: “From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We ‘Policing’ Young Women’s Voices?”
- Two journalists are joined by a Speech Pathologist and a linguistics professor to debate women’s voices
- NPR Fresh Air: “Filmmaker And Speech Pathologist Weigh In On What It Means To ‘Sound Gay’ “
- David Thorpe discusses his new film Do I Sound Gay? with the same Speech Pathologist.
Reactions to the last article were intense:
- David Shariatmadari, The Guardian: “Do you sound gay? What our voices tell us – and what they don’t”
- Sameer ud Dowla Khan, Language Log: “Open letter to Terry Gross”
Both of these responses saved special criticism for the Speech Pathologist in question (who I don’t think it’s important to identify), specifically what they view as the pathologising of normal variation in speech. The SP’s opinions about vocal fry:
They just have developed a speech pattern that’s a habit, and they don’t know how to break out of it. When we present ourselves, the way we speak is our verbal image. Much as the way people in the professional world typically don’t go to work in sweats and a t-shirt, they are more concerned about how they present themselves, a lot of the clients that come to see me are concerned about how they’re presenting themselves verbally.
and on gay speech:
I don’t try to dissuade them because when people come to see me they’ve typically reached the point where it’s really bothering them.
In some ways the Speech Pathologist is working through patient-centered goals: these patients want the speech therapy to achieve a change, so why not give it to them?
I think this model places the clinician outside of the society in which their clients operate. If a client who spoke in a non-standard dialect of English (say, African-American Vernacular English) and said they weren’t happy with their accent and dialect, and wanted to approach the standard variety, what should the Speech Pathologist do? Should we view ourselves as a therapy machine that exists solely to enact individual patient wishes, or should we advocate for a society we would want to be part of that embraced diversity? There is no meaningful functional limitation that comes from using vocal fry, uptalk, gay speech, or AAVE that isn’t propagated by people. Speech Pathologists are people, who are part of society, and pretending that we can leave our prejudices at the door of the clinic room is wishful thinking.
Instead of normalising this difference, so that everyone speaks in the same way to not risk upsetting those who cannot tolerate difference, couldn’t we instead advocate for the acceptance of other ways of talking? Speech Pathology’s record here is not fantastic, as a famous David Sedaris essay reminds us:
One of these days I’m going to have to hang a sign on that door,” Agent Samson [the Speech Pathologist] used to say. She was probably thinking along the lines of SPEECH THERAPY LAB, though a more appropriate marker would have read FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA. We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues. At the beginning of the school year, while we were congratulating ourselves on successfully passing for normal, Agent Samson was taking names as our assembled teachers raised their hands, saying, “I’ve got one in my homeroom,” and “There are two in my fourth-period math class.” Were they also able to spot the future drunks and depressives? Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage and choral careers?
I’m sure that commentary like that above that suggests that the profession is not accepting of language and speech difference is not a ‘good look’ for the profession, especially given that SPs are in general completely unlike the population in makeup (on gender, age, and cultural measures).