Why Do Women Now Sound Like Frogs

THE FINANCIAL TIMES - DECEMBER 2005 by MARILIA DUFFLES
If you’ve noticed an odd voice affectation in American women that's more irritating than hearing your own voice, then you're on the ball. This gritty-gravelly voice towards the end of a sentence comes out of the mouths of television personalities, professors and chatty teenaged girls alike.

Click on a channel and you'll catch correspondents, commentators and the like uttering the last bit of their sentences with the croaky voice of a parrot parrot (or a frog on helium). At a recent conference, I could have sworn the evolutionary biology lecture was being given by a Sex and the City actress instead of a university professor.

To my vindicated relief, experts agree it is an epidemic. I had to investigate what's behind this latest, well, sound wave.

Researching the onomatopeic otolaryngology world revealed fascinating facts and led me to the office of Dr Susan Miller (George Washington University), voice trainer to the public and powerful and, most recently, me.

Though I didn't end up with Kiri te Kanawa's tone, I can now expertly use my voice to move even my editor.

The human voice, she explained with the honeyed tone of someone who practises what she preaches, is a powerful calling card that transmits a good or bad first impression even on the phone, where facial and body language are absent.

Before a word is uttered, air from the lungs travels through the windpipe and vibrates our vocal cords (in the larynx or voice box) at different frequencies that we perceive as pitch. Cords are a misnomer since there are no strings attached to these V-shaped flaps of tissue that fold open and closed and are rightfully called vocal folds. Talk while touching your Adam's apple and you'll feel them vibrating.
If you were to pluck them out of a cadaver and blow air through, they'd sound like a reed instrument.

A living person increases the amount of air for faster vibration, higher pitch and sound volume and longer duration of speech; decreasing the air yields the opposite.

Muscles in front of the neck also increase pitch by lengthening the folds and vice versa. They also help us co-ordinate breathing, swallowing and speaking since we use the same tube for all three.

It's precisely why we can't talk and eat at the same time, with the evolutionary trade-off being a bigger throat area for more sophisticated speech.
What makes a voice your own is the way the sound resonates and increases through the cavities above the folds: pharynx (throat), mouth, sinuses and nose, collectively known as the supraglottal vocal tract, which is typically bigger in men resulting in a bigger voice.

If you have a silky, voluminous voice like Pavarotti's then you're endowed with optimal sound equipment: a clear tone (healthy folds and vibration) that resonates in an open, well-constructed tract, Miller says, sometimes even giving us the ability to sing in frequencies outside the speaking range. This is the timbre that makes the hair on your neck stand up and is also heard in voices like that of Ima Sumac, the Peruvian diva whose amazing folds sing across five octaves.

If you want to hear your real voice - not the lower pitch filtered through the bones of the head - then talk with your hands cupped behind your ears. If you sound rather like Mickey Mouse, then instant tract adjustments can be made: talk with your tongue up against the roof of your mouth (or yawn) and you'll likely end up as governor of California. If that doesn't resonate and you fancy sounding English instead, talk with your mouth more or less shut; it's intriguingly tricky to get words across clenched teeth, as Prince Charles or animation hero Wallace (but not Gromit) would tell you.

And just a mere stretching of the lips shortens the tract's length, resonating the voice at a higher tone and explaining why we can tell when the person talking at the other end of the phone is smiling.

Using all our vocal equipment properly begins with relaxed, paced breathing. This prevents what otolaryngologists call glottal fry - the very biological cause of the voice affectation that irritates me whenever I switch on the TV - which occurs when people continue to speak without taking a necessary breath. This allows the folds to vibrate with minimal air and register the low pitch. Fry is stressful on the folds, a bit like driving with a parking brake on.

And what is the point? Is the female collective-unconscious trying to say something?

Ralph Ohde, professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, believes women adopt this croaky pitch as a means of strengthening their image to make others think they stand on equal ground with men.

But in my humble observation, it's a dismissive laziness of a socio-economically contented lot who simply can't be bothered to take another breath to finish a sentence. Or, it could be both.

Whichever the case, stay tuned and you're bound to hear a social debate on why women are now marching to the beat of a male drummer.