This article by Naomi Wolf in the Guardian rather strongly implies that certain ways of speaking currently found frequently amongst young women are a sign of weakness. Women should abandon them, Wolf argues, and adopt “stronger” modes of speech. Types of speech Wolf attacks include “uptalk” and “vocal fry” (more on what these actually are very shortly). This struck me as interesting because, from a linguistic point of view, there’s not obviously anything particularly “weak” about talking in these ways.

“Uptalk” is the one you could make the best case for being “weak”. (See also Anna’s post from a while ago on the topic of uptalk.) Uptalk is the use of a “questioning” intonation with statements: in physical terms, this means a rising pitch at the end of a sentence. Now, to a certain degree there is a non-arbitrary association of high pitch with smallness and weakness: very roughly speaking, small animals like mice and bats tend to make higher-pitched noises than big animals like elephants and humpback whales. And amongst humans, larger people may (in general) tend to have deeper voices than smaller people, which is an effect of tending to have larger voice boxes.

So, if we assume that smaller things are weaker than bigger things, it follows more-or-less naturally that higher-sounding things will tend to be weaker, or be perceived as weaker, than lower-sounding things. But there are very much a lot of tendencies and generalities worked into the assumptions required to make this argument, and it’s certainly not a straightforward fact of the natural world that if something makes a high-pitched noise it’s therefore weak. Very high-pitched sounds have even been used in fighting off pirates.

What I found really interesting is that vocal fry (or “creaky voice”) is in some senses the opposite of uptalk. Whilst uptalk involves the voice rising to a high pitch, or high-frequency vibration of the vocal folds, vocal fry involves very low frequencies of vocal fold vibration. Our perceptions of pitch tend to relate to frequency of vocal fold vibration, so vocal fry often sounds quite deep.

But if we can make something of an argument for the association of uptalk with weakness not being entirely arbitrary, it’s difficult to see how we can make the same argument for the association of weakness with vocal fry. If anything, the same (still slightly dodgy) line of argumentation should lead us to associate vocal fry with strength: bigger, stronger things make deeper noises.

Ultimately, then, there isn’t anything inherently “weak” about speaking in this way. Any connections between weakness and vocal fry  and this is probably largely true with uptalk too  are basically arbitrary: socially-conditioned perceptions rather than scientifically establishable biological or physical facts. There is nothing objectively weak about certain young women speaking the way they do. Rather, certain people’s existing tendency to associate the young and the female with weakness leads, in turn, to them associating weakness with stereotypically young, female modes of speech. It seems rather unfair to blame young women themselves for this.