April 18th, 2017

Voice trends

Have you ever noticed how there are trends and fashions in voices?

The rising inflection at the end of sentences is a particularly annoying one. But another trend is harder to describe, and that’s the tendency of young women to use tones that veer into those of cartoon characters. These voices are higher in pitch than voices tended to be when I was growing up, somewhat more nasal, and the vowels can be quite complex.

For example, I was just on the phone and was asked for my number. After I gave it, the young woman on the other end said, “Thank you.” She was obviously a native speaker and had no foreign accent at all, but it sounded more like “Theenk Yeeuw.” But that doesn’t capture it entirely, either, because it’s the metallic and penetrating quality, as well as the high pitch and the exaggerated cuteness factor, that especially characterize the voice du jour.

The voice is especially noticeable in waitresses. Are they trained to speak that way?

Here’s a woman who’s bucking the trend, and is teaching people how to deepen and calm their voices:

I have a somewhat deep and relaxed voice naturally. But it’s not very dynamic. In fact, I’ve been told by a few people (who profess to love me!) that my voice relaxes them so much that they use my conversations as a sleep-inducer.

That is supposed to be a compliment.

40 Responses to “Voice trends”

  1. chuck Says:

    > they use my conversations as a sleep-inducer.

    You may have a future as an hypnotist.

  2. carl in atlanta Says:

    Neo: Are you talking about ‘vocal fry’? That kind of creaking or croaking sound made by younger upper middle class women at the end of the last word in a sentence? Once you become aware of it you hear it everywhere.


  3. neo-neocon Says:

    carl in atlanta:

    No, this is entirely different. This is not that grinding sound. This is higher and almost squeaky, although sometimes it has a touch of fry, too.

  4. huxley Says:

    I first noticed the rising inflection at end of sentences when I reunited with my New Mexican relatives in the late seventies. I thought it was a Santa Fe thing.

    Then I started hearing it all over the place.

    Who knows. According to wiki, “the origins of High Rising Terminal remain uncertain.”

    I suspect HRT became hip somewhere in the past, probably in California, which is why it’s become unstoppable.

    Since Santa Fe has long been a stop on the Beautiful People circuit, it makes sense it would have been contaminated early.

  5. huxley Says:

    carl: Vocal fry sounds like fun! I’ll have to keep an ear out for it.

    I’ve long been fascinated by Sarah McLachlan’s voice in “Building a Mystery.” She employs a catalog of frying, breaking and breath effects.

    A lovely song, but the guy sounds like a real creep!


  6. OldTexan Says:

    Those young female voices are extremely hard for me because I am old, half deaf with hearing aids and when I go into a coffee shop or in a resturant I have no idea what they are saying to me. The higher pitch and funny twist might as well be another language.

    I have learned to tell them I am very hard of hearing, that’s its not them because I don’t want to make people mad who are helping me get food and then I ask them to slow down and please talk a little bit louder. That usually works and I only have to do that when my wife is not with me, otherwise she is my translator.

    Some women have a lovely contralto speaking voice and I do enjoy listening to them speak. We live in Texas and I have that West Texas Panhandle twang that goes with dusty cowboy boots but my wife makes up for it because she grew up going to Catholic School in the San Carlos, Palo Alto part of California and she was taught by nuns to speak and enunciate clearly.

    I also think young people have lost a lot of the regional accents since they grow up watching so much on television and movies.

  7. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    In this part of the country, the never ending car commercials have all chosen as spokesman, these high pitched young beta male voices. Since this is intentional, I can only conclude that PC considerations now supersede even business considerations.

  8. Ben Says:

    Whatever happened to the sexy, sensual, mature voices of female movie stars, new readers and singers of not so long ago?When we (my wife and I ) noted the change in the voices of young women a few years ago, she began to call the women “Tweeety- birds.
    Hearing some newsreader commenting in such a voice completely destroys whatever gravitas ( to use a weighty word) they might aspire to.
    How can girls mature physically so quickly, yet have such immature voice?. Must be all those immunization shots, I guess.

  9. huxley Says:

    There’s actually something called “Bogart-Bacall syndrome” which is a hoarseness resulting from speaking with an unnaturally low pitch.


    I don’t know if Bogart and Bacall paid a price for it, but I have read they both worked to speak with a lower pitch.

    Of course back in those days Americans aspired to sound mature and be taken seriously.

  10. Jack Says:

    Yes! I’ve been noticing this, too! Driving me crazy.

  11. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Certainly vocal styles in singing have changed since nelson eddy and jeanette macdonald.
    I hear a lot of devolved Valley Girl.
    Also as I think Neo was alluding to where the response to a question sounds like a question.
    “What’s your name?”
    “You’re not sure about that, or not sure what I think of that?”

  12. M J R Says:


    I remember you being on Michael Savage’s radio program a few years back.

    This may come off as brown-nosing, but to me, you had a very pleasing voice, and an obviously intelligent demeanor.

    I certainly would not characterize it as sleep-inducing — but then, I was very interested in what you had to contribute to the audience on that program.

  13. huxley Says:

    neo on Michael Savage? Sounds like a trip!

    Savage is too much of a blowtorch for my taste, but he is an intelligent guy and he’s been around.

  14. JC Says:

    I was in hospital some 7 years ago, and the again 2 years ago. Some of the nurses remembered me from the first visit. They would get their friends to visit me. Because voice. It’s the only thing over which one has absolute control. They thought I was sexy.

  15. Artfldgr Says:

    Like no, i never really noticed such fads.. like hey man… or like oh my gawd tubular… duh… from cockney, to southern drawl, auditory variation is the rule, not the exception… you dirty rat, your the man who killed my brother…

  16. OKBecky Says:

    From my experience in customer service (waitressing, airline reservations, website navigation, fast food), I’ve found that inflecting my voice higher calms most people. It gives the impression of “sweet girl next door” and diffuses a lot of hostility, because people would feel like a heel to be rude to The Girl Next Door. Some people still are, of course, but they tend to get short shrift from the managers they inevitably demand, because “they were mean to Becky!” “That sweet lady?? Ooooh!”

    Many people who call customer service are already upset. Many people in restaurants are hungry and impatient, which can quickly turn ugly, sad to say. I’ve noticed a trend over the past 20 years in how customers have developed bigger egos: *I* shouldn’t be expected to endure an inconvenience, *I* don’t have to put up with this, *you* have to make it right or I will make you suffer, and so forth. The waitress or the CSR has only moments to create a positive – albeit temporary – relationship, and one way to do that is to come across as non-threatening as possible.

  17. huxley Says:

    I’ve found that inflecting my voice higher calms most people.

    OKBecky: Interesting. I once watched a dog trainer demonstrate his technique and he said to use a high light friendly tone to gain cooperation from the dog.

    I notice most people do that instinctively with dogs unless they are disciplining.

    However annoying High Rising Tone can be, it is less confrontational, which in our Age of Special Snowflakes is a value unto itself.

  18. Tara Says:

    I do like deep voices, and wish mine wasn’t so high and soft–people tend not to hear me unless I raise my voice so much that I feel like I’m yelling.

    I notice the trend toward higher voices more on the radio than in real life, though. It seems like every up-and-coming singer has a high, clear voice, which can be nice… but I’m beginning to really miss the deeper, stronger singing voices. It starts to be annoying when every male singer sounds like a woman and every female singer sounds like a child.

    (One of my favorite female voices, btw, is that of Holly Hunter, who voiced Helen Parr/Elastigirl in The Incredibles. She slurs her S’s just a touch, and it’s very appealing to the ear.)

  19. F Says:

    Look at the bright side, Neo: your writing doesn’t put us to sleep!

  20. huxley Says:

    I notice the trend toward higher voices more on the radio than in real life…

    Tara: A friend’s wife, who directs Little Theater on the side, just hates the hyper-soprano vocalists like Sarah Brightman.

    I take her point but Sarah Brightman will always Take My Breath Away.


    Holly Hunter’s southern accent is delectable. I could spread it on toast or better yet, on catshead biscuits.

    I die most of the time I hear southern accents in the movies or tv. There is a range of southern accents and they are usually more subtle than Hollywood portrays.

    But those accents are hard to do. I sure can’t. The latter part of my childhood was in the south, but the formative part was SoCal. I’m pure California Mushmouth, which I understand is the proper term in some linguistic circles.

  21. Tesh Says:

    The Valley “upspeak” where everything sounds like a question drives me crazy. My 10 year old daughter is infected, and I can’t figure out how. She and her male cousin of 11 also use “like” as a conversation filler and all-purpose verb, which is also deeply annoying. I tease them gently about both, which helps curb excesses, but I still find the persistence of both trends to be deeply disgruntling.

    I’m also not a fan of the high pitched squirrel-speak. It’s almost always a sign of bubble-brained twits with nothing to say at 300 words per minute. I’ve learned not to automatically associate it with incompetence, but the correlation is high.

  22. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I won a contest on the Bill Bennett show a couple years ago for a couple political ads I created and voiced.
    I got a lot of support from a local radio station where I call in regularly. Suggestions were made that I had a good voice for radio and now I cohost a show on Saturdays.
    That said, I listen to recordings of myself and other hosts and find that in comparison, I find my voice too low and throaty (that Bogart/Bacall thing).
    The hosts I think do it well actually have more midrange voices. They actually come across clearer and are more engaging.
    If anyone wants the Neo appearance on savage, here’s a link.

  23. Tom G Says:

    Moon Unit Zappa popularized the “like …” (eg “it was like, so bitching”), in the 1982 song Valley Girl.


    With a high, squeaky “OhMyGod”, which was, like, one word.

    Tho most of her voice was lower.

    Sarah Palin, who I like, has a terrible high voice I don’t like to listen to — worse than Hillary’s, whose vocal tones I also don’t like.

    Carly’s voice is much, much nicer, tho still a bit high.

    Obama has a great voice — I’m sure lots of folks like him partly for that, no matter what lies or half-truths he says. Much better than that of Ted Cruz, tho I much prefer what Ted says.

    Vocal quality is underdiscussed relative to the words said, but I suspect has almost as much emotional impact.

    The increase in High Squeaky is terrible.

  24. Michael F Adams Says:

    Southerners, Black and White, have used a rising inflection for decades, the implication is “Do you see?” or “Do you understand?” It spreads into other aspects of speech, but that is the origin. e.g. Information operator “796? 3475?” Sometimes the second rise is omitted. In that setting, it is not intended to be tentative, or querulous , either.

    The corollary is to respond with some affirmation. “Yes,” “Unh-hunh” or, in church, “Amen.”

  25. Julia Says:

    OKBecky – I’ve noticed a trend over the past 20 years in how customers have developed bigger egos: *I* shouldn’t be expected to endure an inconvenience, *I* don’t have to put up with this,

    I think that really we’re all so inconvenienced and frustrated by life. Anything out of the ordinary turns into such a hassle to deal with. I have on my list of things to do this week – call Comcast, call my HOA, call Macy’s about my stolen credit card that they never properly handled which is ruining my credit and they aren’t doing what they said they would to fix it (and I’ve spent maybe 5 hours on the phone with them already), change a doctor’s appt, call my sister’s HOA, and call about getting my garage door replaced. (Which my SO “fixed” as part of preventative maintenance but he ended up destroying the unit.)

    Just having all that on the list is making me cranky. I’ll be shocked if any of the above goes smoothly.

    You almost can’t do ANYTHING anymore without it turning into a huge pain.

    I think that’s why there’s so much road rage and short tempers. Technology has made things both better and worse. But the irritation factor seems to have increased.

  26. Julia Says:

    As far as voices go, back when I was in high school/college I worked for a large car dealer. They installed a voice system (pretty early on) and I was their voice. Overflow calls would go to me and people wouldn’t reply when I answered. I’d have to say ‘hello? hello?’ and inevitably I’d get a stammer from the other end with something like ‘I thought you were the machine’. Well, I was, kinda.

  27. John Dough Says:

    I always have trouble with 16 year old high school girls at Fast Food drive through windows. They talk in what I call “Fast Talk” and “Upspeak”. Fast talk is defined by Tomi Lehren, formerly of the Blaze network and Upspeak is where every sentence sounds like a question. Speaking via a 39 cent speaker system always makes this a challenging situation to my hard of hearing 68 years. Like you know!!!!

  28. Mac Says:

    I’m not sure what the high-pitched almost-cartoony syndrome being described is. I do notice that a lot of young women are annoyingly chirpy which helps give the impression that they’re, um, bird-brained. Maybe that’s it.

    Being normally in the habit of lamenting the decline of nearly everything, I’m always happy to see an improvement somewhere. One of these is in the southern accents of movie and tv characters. I’ve lived in the south all my life (approaching 70 years now) and until fairly recently southern accents in movies were pretty much uniformly ludicrous, and were either irritating or made me feel embarrassed for the actor, depending on my mood (and whether or not the character was the stereotypical person given a southern accent to mark him as a moron or racist, or more usually both).

    But in recent years things have vastly improved, and best of all are, surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly, since they tend to be better actors all around) are some Brits. I remember first being floored by Miranda Richardson’s performance in Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (great movie btw).

  29. London Trader Says:

    Mac: Or Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge.

  30. SharonW Says:

    Thank you so much for this, Neo. Several months ago I was pressed into service to read at the 6:30 am daily Mass I attend. While I have been surprised by the amount of positive feedback I have received, nonetheless, managing “morning voice” before I get there has been a challenge. The first 2 exercises she recommends will be a big help. (The singing on the way, I was already doing.)

    Huxley-with regard to the dog. Years ago I was visiting a friend and another friend brought her Doberman along. I wanted to meet him and when I did, she spoke in a quiet, soothing voice, immediately calming his excited response. Ever since, that is exactly how I have managed my dog when he responds to a doorbell, knock or new person. Very effective.

  31. Richard Aubrey Says:

    “Thee leeuw” is common now. As is “feeeood” for food. I once had a meeting with a woman who said “yuss”, we’ll sit at the dusk” Every third sentence had something that should have had the “ess” phoneme. Made me nuts trying to figure out why she was doing that.
    And the “a” sound in “fast”, which is common, is morphing to “ah”. Thaht fahmily is fahst.
    But for ruining credibility, clarity, and authority, it’s hard to be the uptalk.

  32. DNW Says:

    Followed one of the links to the vocal up-tick or question sound to declarative sentences, and I agree that it was probably from Australia, or even Canada, originally. In fact I remember remarking on the phenomenon during the days of the Australian movie invasion. There seemed to be something in much of their manner of speaking that was intended to either seek agreement, or (in the case of Brits and Canadians) to convey irony or archness.

    “I’ve lived in the south all my life (approaching 70 years now) and until fairly recently southern accents in movies were pretty much uniformly ludicrous, and were either irritating or made me feel embarrassed for the actor, depending on my mood (and whether or not the character was the stereotypical person given a southern accent to mark him as a moron or racist, or more usually both).

    But in recent years things have vastly improved, …”

    As a kid with upper south/western relatives it grated the heck out of me to hear these thoroughly inept and annoying accents which were as you mention, just signals for audience disapproval.

    As a child, I recall seeing both “The Unforgiven” with it’s lunatic sword waving galloping preacher, and the Oxbow Incident, on TV: each featuring a uniformed caricature of a bigot, raving in a “southern” accent.

    Eventually hearing an actor on The Twilight Zone, a young dark-haired guy whose somewhat over-the-top accent seemed nonetheless to be authentic, though quite a bit more extreme than I was used to hearing, surprised me.

    I’m pretty sure now that the actor was a youngish James Best. At least that is how it looks to me in backtracking.

    Arthur Hunnicutt, another fellow with an extreme but seemingly authentic accent, was also on the Twilight Zone I think. He played an old hunter whose dog drowned. A story sure to get the attention and provoke the sympathy of any 7 year old boy.

  33. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Decades ago, I knew a woman who was educated at Mercer and very kind. Listening to her was like having a mint julep poured into my ear, but I only got about half of what she was saying.
    Not far from where she grew up was a guy whose cracker accent was harsh, unpleasant, and clear.

  34. Bilwick Says:

    Uptalk I am familiar with; but is this an example of “High Rising Terminal”?


  35. Esther Says:

    Once I took a continuing ed voice class in public speaking, I was the only female.. just putting it out there:-)

  36. huxley Says:

    I enjoyed “Justified,” a TV series about a US Marshal in Harlan, KY. My experience of the South was FL, GA and LA, so I can’t vouch for the accents in “Justified,” but they sounded reasonable. (KY is neither fish nor fowl on the Southern question, but Harlan is only 20 miles north of Tennessee, though there is that bit of West Virginia which gets in the way.)

    The thing about Southerners is just because they don’t sound like they are from New York or Los Angeles, doesn’t mean they all sound the same.

    I also liked that “Justified” was the first TV show I can remember since Andy Griffith where Southerners (or Appalachians) were portrayed sympathetically.

    Even though I was all countercultural and progressive when I got to San Francisco, I really hated hearing Californians put Southerners down.

    I don’t claim to be a Southerner. But I lived among people who were and I respected them.

  37. huxley Says:

    Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
    With some smart-ass New York Jew
    And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
    And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
    Well, he may be a fool but he’s our fool
    If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
    So I went to the park and I took some paper along
    And that’s where I made this song

    We talk real funny down here
    We drink too much and we laugh too loud
    We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
    And we’re keepin’ the niggers down

    –Randy Newman, “Rednecks”


    Randy making trouble in 1974. It’s not a simple song. Listen to the whole thing. From the album, “Good Old Boys.” His best IMO.

    Newman is Jewish and he spent much of his childhood in New Orleans. Life is complicated.

    Lester Maddox was a governor of Georgia (1967-1971) and a segregationist Democrat.

  38. Mac Says:

    …a guy whose cracker accent was harsh, unpleasant, and clear.

    Alas, I’m afraid that’s what I sound like. It’s the nasal Tennessee-ish twang, not what we call “magnolia mouth,” which comes from further south and is rich and warm.

    I haven’t seen Hacksaw Ridge, London Trader, but another one that comes to mind is Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss in No Country for Old Men. I think that somewhere along the line in this transition to real accents I actually remarked “Well, they finally got an actual southerner to play a southern role”, only to learn that the actor was British.

    One that didn’t quite work, however, was Liam Neeson in Seraphim Falls. He and Pierce Brosnan played, respectively, Confederate and Union soldiers. Neeson’s accent wasn’t bad, just off enough to be noticeable.

    In general Brit actors have gotten extremely good at American accents. I remember being staggered when I heard Bertie Wooster ( Hugh Laurie) speak perfect American in Stuart Little. And then of course House.

  39. Francesca Says:

    Mexicans do that uprising thing at the end of sentences, too. In Spanish. When I lived in Chihuahua, it drove me crazy.

  40. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Neo, the high register might actually be their exposure to Japanese anime.

    I’ve used voice commands on strange packs of dogs, semi feral. Only the deeper more powerful registers will command them. The other stuff, they ignore. No wonder the ancients said they learned martial arts techniques from animals.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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