In Defense Of Chronic Baby Voice

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It’s a well-known fact: my friend’s boyfriend hates it when us girls come over. We block the TV for video games, bother him with questions about his day, litter the room with our coats and bags, and more importantly, become squealing infants.

“OMG hiyeeeee!” we exclaim or “I love youuuuu.

It’s the phenomenon known as the ‘baby voice’—a mix of high pitch, vocal fry, and ‘up-talk.'

It isn’t new. Lake Bell wrote a movie concerning it. Liz Lemon ruined one woman’s life over it. And almost all of us have employed it at some point in our lives.

Typically, the baby voice is assumed as a vocal affectation men love (sounds sexy) and women loath (seems stupid). Yet, said-boyfriend hates baby talk and so does my brother. And of my girlfriends who occasionally baby talk, one manages a team of 50 people and the other is enrolled in architecture school. Furthermore, none of us engage in baby speak to assumedly attract men. So why, when we’re together do we talk this way?

There’s basic biology: men are larger. "They have larger larynxes that thus produce different acoustic sounds," Professor of Linguistics at New York University Gregory Guy explains to me. Women are smaller. Allowing them to emit sounds smaller objects would make like, say, babies, or your dogs chew toy.

Often times though, this speech pattern is reinforced. “Some kids, when they have cute voices, get a lot more attention,” celebrity vocal coach Roger Love simply states.  So while puberty will force a boy’s voice to change, a girl’s will remain the same. Leading many to carry their ‘cute’ baby voice into adulthood because, well, why change what works?

This, of course, is problematic.

Problematic because, as Love puts it, “when you have a baby voice and people perceive you to have that cutesy and baby sound, then you end up molding your personality to it. You try to be cute and say funny things. But, maybe that’s not your personality at all. Maybe you’re more serious. Maybe you’re a genius but you have a hard time making people understand that you should run the company because you sound like the daughter of the person who should run the company.” (Sophia Amoruso must address this somewhere in #GirlBoss, right? How to not sound like the daughter of a CEO?)

This is Bell’s point too in the movie: Her sexy baby voice (SBV, for short) character can’t secure a job as a lawyer because no one takes her seriously.

“Women have learned these conditions,” asserts Gigi Buffington, assistant arts professor in NYU’s Tisch Drama department. “They have received approval for them and their voices reflect it. Let’s say a young woman wants something—the way she has learned to get something she wants is by disempowering her voice by using a little girl sound.”

So, while it’s easy to assume a woman with a baby voice is simply unintelligent, biology and social conditioning often work against her. As Buffington explains too, “The baby voice is a safe place to be. It keeps people in positions of authority feeling like they’re in positions of authority.”

But, a chronic baby voice (or any vocal tic for that matter) is easy to fix. It simply requires awareness and correct use of breath. Love recommends you:

1) Inhale and let the belly expand

2) Exhale and feel the stomach contract

3) Speak only during that time of contraction

This technique grants greater range and control over the voice, which Buffington says “will allow a woman to go into any situation and speak her truth from a place that is her unique center. So she can then stretch that into many different directions to be as dynamic and as authentic as she chooses to be so that she can change the world. When a woman is in the center and in her truth—I lean in, let me tell you.”

Yet, there’s another reason my friends and I talk this way. “A group of women together,” professor Guy explains, “one of the things they may be doing is emphasizing and displaying and constructing their femininity and feminine identities.” So while our baby voices might not be appropriate for the boardroom or classroom, in my friend’s living room, it’s fine. We realize what we’re doing and feel no reason to change.

Though, if we spoke that way any longer than a few minutes, I would be worried.

—Alexis Cheung

 

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  • http://madamecouture.blogspot.com/ Emma Hager

    Alexis, this piece was so interesting. Well-written, informative and thought-provoking. I love that ITG is exploring topics like this. Such a nice variety of content. X

  • Haiku Jew

    Cats like baby talk
    dumb dudes have their lame lingo
    and also, lingams!

    • Alexis Cheung

      lingams! great word. also <3 haikus. don't ever stop.

      • Haiku Jew

        Thanks, for your kind words
        the haiku come from my heart
        with hilarity!

  • tera

    I work with a girl whose "professional/phone voice" sounds like a Disney princess. It's so bad, and so far from her actual voice it's absurd. Customers cannot understand her, and in fact older people actually lose their hearing in high registers before low, so that makes sense. I'm sure dolphins would have no problems with it.....

  • Louise

    Well, I'm Belgian and I assure you - I have this kind of voice naturally. I'm only 20 years old but I'm sure it will at least affect, or even hinder my career, not being taken seriously a hell lot of times.

    • Bella

      I'm sorry Louise! I hope your voice will deepen at least a little as you get older; otherwise maybe the tips in the article will help you. It's really good to be aware of it though. And I do think that there is a difference between having a naturally light voice and actually affecting one for whatever reason.

  • Marina Schwarz

    Glad to have a deep voice, I cant even listen to women wth those baby voices

  • Evelyn Brockmann
  • Cinamaron

    I don't do the 'baby' voice but my voice is high pitched naturally. It sounds a lot lower to me when I'm speaking, but whenever I hear a recording of myself talk I sound like I'm 12. I feel like people view me as younger or more childlike because of this, which can be super frustrating :/. It doesn't help that I'm short too.

  • Alexis Cheung

    sounds like a keeper!

  • Alexis Cheung

    no way, my friend just needs a new boyfriend ;)

    • freudianslippers

      HOLLAAAA

  • Gina

    While I recognize the truth of earliest hearing loss in the high registers, I have a very deep voice for my size (I feel you, Lauren) and it always seem that people who've started to go deaf cannot hear me at all (my grandpa, my aunt, the barrista who's played in a rock band too long). My boyfriend was the chronic baby voice culprit (his voices for normal conversations and talking to me were at least an octave apart).

  • Aapa

    I must say I do not like the phrasing of sharing ideas about how women "should or shouldn't sound." Women will sound whatever they want. Isn't it the point of this article? Some women keep talking with a "baby voice" because that pleases men and their entourage in general. Women should speak with their real, strong, inner voice, with confidence. They should speak for themselves, not for others. That means using a baby voice if want to, not using one if they don't.
    And working on you voice to be more attractive, to "ignite attraction"? I don't think I need a course on that matter.

  • Alice

    Nope, it's a thing in Portugal. Had a colleague that used that voice when she had a doubt, I can't describe how annoying it was.

  • gwenlle

    This was an interesting article, but as a linguist, I found it parts of it frustrating. You mention that women's vocal tracts/larynxes are smaller, but you say this 'allows' them to produce higher pitched sounds, but realistically your speech apparatus also constrains the sounds you can produce; the size of your larynx determines the center of your range in speaking. You can work to shift from one extreme of your range to another, but you can't really shift the range without a lot of training, and effort (this is why vocalists with multi-octave ranges are celebrated).

    The social context isn't all 'women affecting higher pitched voices because they're sexy" - unless your vocal apparatus are on one extreme or another, you probably fall where you do in terms of pitch because a combination of biology and the general behavior of women around you. Speech patterns like uptalk are heavily influenced by your general social context - to say that "the way she has learned to get something she wants is by disempowering her voice" carries the unstated corollary that women who choose not to participate in some of these speech patterns can suffer social consequences (for example, not up-talking when that is the social norm is often punished for being 'too aggressive').

    Additionally, rather than just talking about how disempowering/infantalizing some people reportedly perceive women with high pitched voices (affected or otherwise) to be, why not be more clear about this connection between the fact that women naturally have higher pitched voices - and that high-pitched voices in adults command far less respect? Those facts aren't unrelated. In fact, they tie into a culture of linking femininity to various neotenic traits (youthfulness in general, large eyes, higher contrast in facial features, hairlessness in body/face etc.) - and devaluing it.

    It's true that being able to deliberately change these characteristics based on immediate social context (code-switching) is very valuable, but to conclude that it's fine to 'emphasize...[your] feminininty and feminine identity' as long as you keep it at home and out of 'the boardroom' is ridiculous. Not all of the things you discuss are affectation, and I'm as much a woman in the boardroom as I am at home.

    • Alexis Cheung

      I appreciate your professional insight and feedback on the article. When I say the voice my friends and I use in her living room isn’t meant for the boardroom, I’m not referencing femininity in general. I mean just as any male or female wouldn’t wear sweatpants into an important business meeting, they also wouldn’t bring their best friend baby voice, or “bro” voice, or general friend topics of discussion for that matter, to speak to their bosses because it’s inappropriate in that specific context. So while I now realize the unsaid implication of using that quote before my statement, ITG readers are smart and I think for the most part, understand where I am coming from.

      I think any voice that a woman uses is an expression of her unique femininity and identity. I just hope this article helps women think about the ways in which they use their voices. It’s an empowering tool that I personally never thought much about before speaking with these professionals.

  • Shawna

    I don't do the baby talk, but I am definitely guilty of vocal fry and up talk. But I'm, like, from california, so it's normal, you know?

  • freudianslippers

    I speak like a valley girl and I get shit for it and I don't give a fuck. I used to care until I realized that the only people bugging me about it were sexist as fuck. I can turn it off when I am in professional or academic settings (I am a therapist) but I do have a hyper-feminine voice, I say "like" a lot, and my voice gets high-pitched and loud when I get excited. Anyone who thinks I need to "fix" it can eat it.

  • Lexi

    How many people clicked on this for the lipstick??? :p

  • chartreuse

    What's missing in these comments (and the headline/framing--hello clickbait) for me is that Alexis is actually putting a semi-feminist twist on this issue: that many women talk like this because they're conditioned to, because they get results when they do it--from men or from their girlfriends as a form of bonding. The pattern is magnified by pop culture and media, which surely ingrain subconscious messages, too. Maybe it's not as natural as we think. Or maybe mimicry is more natural still. I'm still in the 'please don't do that' tribe, but you made me think. Thanks.

  • Mari

    Anyone know what that lipstick is? I love it.

  • Sarah

    This made me stop and think for second if you're the girl from Sidesaddle Kitchen, but her name is Laura. I think her deep voice makes her sound super professional and while watching her videos, I kinda wished I also had a deeper voice like hers. But like you're saying, you gotta work with whatcha got! Listen to her soothing voice here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eftolbGBTEk

    • Calraigh

      Oh my god. Thank you! Between this amazing person and Lisa Eldridge, I may have found my ultimate relaxation nirvana. Her voice is RIDIC. Christ, a nice voice now is something I want, along with a lipstick that doesn't make look like I just exited an asylum.

  • stu

    concordo também.

  • Guest

    I will continue to judge, but thanks anyway.

  • kt mo

    i HAVE a baby voice. Like, a sleepy baby. i have always put on my lower, kind of dude voice for work and stuff, but if i'm speaking honestly the way my vocal chords do it i sound like a Disney princess. i'm a soprano naturally when i sing, and it's just a more comfy register for me. People shouldn't have to learn how to talk different whether they're affecting a baby voice to protect themselves, or lowering their voice to be taken seriously, as in my case. It's horridly sexist any way you slice it.

  • Alexis Cheung

    The linguist I spoke with said I used some vocal fry meaning I could be "trendy" heh

  • Graphy

    ABSOLUTELY seeing this is in Asian countries. Quite a few guys 'pander' to women with higher, more whiny, 'baby'-ish voices -- maybe because it makes them feel protective? Who knows. To be fair, a good majority are starting to hate it because it's just kind of pathetic when used intentionally.

  • Eimear McGovern

    The only people I've heard 'baby voice', or 'sexy (?) baby voice' from are American girls in their twenties. I've never heard it from any other demographic, unless you count the voice you talk to actual babies in as 'baby voice', which I don't really.
    I was so irritated by one girl's baby voice that I actually asked her 'why did you put on that voice all the time?' (she did actually use it knowingly), and she said, 'you should try it, guys find it really sexy'. I swear to God, I vomited a little in my mouth.

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