[Warning! Particularly curmudgeonly fulminations ahead. If you’re under, say, 35 and female you might want to spend your allotted time elsewhere.]
I suppose it’s a peculiar tribute to the pervasiveness of television in our culture that virtually every American female under the age of 35 sounds like Tori Spelling or one of the other aurally obnoxious cast members of Beverly Hills 90210. I blame that program and MTV—videos and Real World—mid-’80s to mid-’90s, just before the dawn of the Byotch-’Ho’ Era. It’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with for the utter ubiquity of these ugly, piercing speech patterns. How did things go so wrong? Sounding like a Valley girl used to be a joke—thank you, Moon Unit Zappa—not an aspiration. I knew it was an epidemic when a teenager from rural Idaho bruised finely-tuned ears coast to coast on high-school Jeopardy. (That was back in the day, before Ken, folks.)
Here’s what I’m hearing:
- The short “e” sound—”eh” has been displaced by “aa.” Thus, “fresh” becomes “fraash.”
- Similarly, the “e” preceding words ending in “r” has nearly vanished, gobbled by the rapidly-multiplying last consonant. Combined, “Jennifer” is pronounced “Jaanif’rrr.”
- Mid-word syllables containing vowels are truncated as well. “Totally” is heard as “totely.” Don’t neglect those riveting conversation-starters: “Ockshullee;” “Besiklee;” and the ever-present “Hoepf’lee.”
- The double-”o” sound heard as “ooh” has been replaced by “eww.” Thus, “to” or “too” becomes “teww.” Two broadcast examples: “mewwvie” (movie) and “Kewwp’rrr” (Cooper).
- “Ent” as a second syllable is always emphasized, regardless of the word; when an “ooh” sound occurs in the preceding syllable it is elongated. “Couldn’t” is articulated as “coooDENT” and “student” as “stoooDENT.” Used to be only muscle-headed Brooklyn cops talked like this—but the rest of their musical and colorful speech habits more than made up for it.
- Delivering the “s” sound is improved by hissing. A lot. This affected malocclusion is predominately female and appears self-inflicted. (Our President must accept blame here. “Eevuldooerrssssss.” “Awnterpernooerrssssss.” “Terr’rssssstsssss.” Thanks; we ‘pershate it. Side note: Who aspires to sound like the most vacant public figure in recent memory?) It started with just a soupçon of whistle in an abbreviated hiss; now it’s progressed beyond the worst imaginable stereotype of a lisping gay male. Listen to spokesmodels and voiceovers in TV ads. The sensation is a knife taking off your skin like citrus rind. (While we’re here, have you noticed that most upscale cosmetics and hair care products and all Victoria’s Secret’s stuff is hawked electronically by babes using totally bogus foreign accents—while they’re hissing? Do you fear the marketing data that supports this strategy as much as I do?) What are we doing to the self-esteem of orthodontists in this country?
- In some of the conversations by which I’ve innocently stood, a “tsk” formed by clicking the tongue against the front palate has supplanted “uh” and “yaknow” as the neo-pause suitable for inhaling without yielding the floor. A single lips-smack adds special emphasis. Again, this is curiously a mostly female malady. Seriously—listen for it. “Okay, like (tsk) he said, ‘Whatever,” and I’m all, like, ‘No way!’ (tsk) and he goes, “Well, we’ll just see about that, young lady!” (tsk) and I’m like “So, duh, Daddy! (tsk) and…” You get the idea. (Let me just apologize right here for pointing this out; now you’re contaminated, like me. Sorry.)
- We’re all familiar with the pseudoverbs “like” and “all,” as in “I’m like, ‘Duh!’ and he’s all, ‘Whatever!’” “You know” still overbears, as well. The first and last are made more sublime in pronunciation: “Lake” and “y’knœw.”
- How about those long trains of coupled sentence fragments? In which every clause that’s uttered? Comes out as a question?
- Then there’s the alternative that’s never identified. Waitress: “Er yoo finashed with thaat, er…?” In this situation I use the earnest, imploring look, yearning for the other option. To date, no dice.
- “You guys,” which comes out as “yewgayz,” is the appropriate second-person plural pronoun. What can I possibly add? (Besides, I’ll elaborate on its ubuquity in a future rant. )
As if all that isn’t hard enough on the old cochleae, there’s timbre, inflection, and delivery. Most of the words seem to be propelled from between the uvula and the back of the throat—you know, the hawking region—and pour forth like rounds from a Gatling gun. The tone is flat and unvaried but the edge is hard, as though sarcasm or sophistication is achieved hydraulically rather than synaptically. The overall impression is that, instead of rolling out rhythmically like notes on a musical staff, words are hacked off a steadily-rising mass of gorge and expelled with the force of a manic Benihana chef.
Speaking of ear fatigue, what’s happened to voice modulation, especially on the radio? I’ll admit, after two and a half decades of the sonorous, Morrowesque tones of Bob Edwards—delivering the obvious intellect, preparation, and brief, incisive questions—adjustment is difficult. Still, what’s up with Renee Montaigne? She varies between alto and dog whistle and her pace, inflection, and emphasis defy logic. When did the FCC pass the resolution requiring that invisible news hosts try to sound entertaining? I want to continue to support NPR because it’s important, but I can’t take this much longer…I’m coming to XM, Colonel Bob!
I’ve saved the least explicable and most aggravating for last: the little girl voice. This phenomenon seems to occur mostly frequently among prepossessed women barely out of their teens who earn their daily bread greeting the public. You know, your average maitre d’hôtel with a streaked ponytail, exposed navel ring, and the requisite overbearing attitude—well-earned, of course, since the most galvanizing events in her life so far have been mastering foundation and running out of cell phone minutes. But I digress. She speaks, and out leaps Shirley Temple Munchkin. I can’t decide which is most disconcerting—the elevation in pitch, the practiced voice alteration, or the total absence of eye-batting and other coyness clichés that might soften the blow. The effect on the listener is something between brain cramp and short-term memory loss, which I’m guessing is the desired effect. I can just picture the coquette moving through her formative years, honing her voice and craft to reach ever-loftier heights of paternal and escort manipulation. No way you’d ever convince me someone talks that way without cultivation and malice aforethought—including (and maybe especially) Meg and Jennifer Tilly.
Will we ever recover from any of this? The most unfortunate and dislocating example in my recent memory was Valerie Mahaffy’s rendition of “Annie Howard” in Seabiscuit. Credible performance—except for the fact that she sounded like she’d just left an N’Sync concert instead of a Depression-era Mexican bullring. Perhaps it’s just those of us who are old enough to hear Barrymore (that’s John, not Drew) and Olivier in our heads who are tormented. Consider this, though—with the platoons of Aussie and British thespians all over our film and television who can nail our accents and speech patterns without sounding like a Jacqueline Susanne character was their dialogue coach, what’s the matter with our performers? Aren’t they trained in some fashion? Don’t they listen to themselves? Ever? If they’d stop it, so would the millions of impressionable young creatures who (shudder) aspire to be like them.
On the bright side, I guess we did outgrow that period when every Warner and Mayer contract starlet affected the bullshit Back Bay accent (”Hell-oh, Dahling! I miss yew; rally I dew…”) because Hepburn had one for real. (That’s Kathryn, not Audrey. Holly Golightly and Liza Doolittle were indeed characters. And charming in their diction, at that.) Problem is, I don’t remember that particular plague being as pervasive; therefore, I’m not optimistic.
So, occlusionists and speech and drama teachers of the world, arise! You are our best and perhaps last hope. We have nothing to lose but our earaches.