Little Voices, Big Problems

A phenomenon that has reached epic proportions is that of the little girl voice. It is comprised of what the voice-over artist Lake Bell calls uptalking. According to her, uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions) or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler is often chosen, sometimes subconsciously, to sound “less threatening or domineering” (see “In a World” by NPR Staff July 25, 2013). In other words, these women are talking like little girls and often give the impression, in the words of Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College, that they are “insecure, emotional or even stupid.

Little VoiceElizabeth Wagele in her online article “When Women Sound Like Little Girls” (August 27, 2013) suggests that women choose this voice to somehow give the message that they are “harmless, so take care of me.” Interestingly, this vocal choice is most often used by women around men or around people in authority. And in the case of authority, men have been known to utilize it as well.

Obviously, some women do have small, girlish voice, and in that case it is not so much a matter of choice but of genetics. And many girls and women speak this way because it is what they have heard from their female role-model sisters—the thought being “if they speak this way and they are happy and successful, then I will speak this way, too.”

As an expressive voice coach I am most interested in where the decision to speak like this initiates. All too often it has been my experience that this voice is the result of childhood trauma. Dr. Drew Pinsky discovered this to be true for himself as well after working for many years in addiction medicine. It is his belief that an “incident of trauma freezes some portion of the brain’s development, resulting in the speech pattern remaining the same into adulthood” (Lovelines Wiki).

The good news is that no matter what the initiating reason (if any), women who undergo appropriate treatment usually lose this pattern and speak normally. My hope is that in the future more formal research will be done on this phenomenon so that we can help our girls and woman speak with confidence, intelligence, grace and beauty.