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MLK’s little-girl voice

August 17, 2013

This post moves from “grammaire” to the gender of sound.

Let’s start by listening to Anne Carson. Here’s a little bit from her essay, “The Gender of Sound”:

We have noticed this combinatory tactic already throughout most of the ancient and some of the modern discussions of voice: female sound is bad to hear both because the quality of a woman’s voice is objectionable and because woman uses her voice to say what should not be said. When these two aspects are blurred together, some important questions about the distinction between essential and constructed characteristics of human nature recede into circularity. Nowadays, sex difference in language is a topic of diverse research and unresolved debate. The sounds made by women are said to have different inflectional patterns, different ranges of intonation, different syntactic preferences, different semantic fields, different diction, different narrative textures, different behavioural accoutrements, different contextual pressures than the sounds that men make…. But in general, no clear account of the ancient facts can be extracted from strategically blurred notions like the homology of female mouth and female genitals, or tactically blurred activities like the ritual of the aischrologia. What does emerge is a consistent paradigm of response to otherness of voice….

Next let’s look at what linguist Mark Liberman wrote on his Language Log yesterday:


The highlighting is my attempt to show that Liberman is implicitly stating that sounding “more girlish” and speaking “in the voice of a little girl” is NOT something that either a grown up politician like Ann Richards or a big civil rights leader like the man Martin Luther King Jr. (in his dreamy “I Have A Dream” speech) would intend to do.

Let’s notice together Liberman’s implication also that the woman speaker is already “girlish” in her speech in ways that the male speaker is not at all girlish. In his parallel statements about Richards and King, Liberman stresses for King that he, this man, “is emphatically not … trying to perform.” He is neither girlish in the least nor attempting to come across like a little girl.

If you read the rest of what Liberman writes, it’s not surprisingly like what Carson writes of other men writing of women speaking so undesirably.

Liberman, for example, like Aristotle did, resorts to biology. Liberman has the distinct advantage of being able to resort more scientifically to the theory of evolution to explain. And yet he does provide a picture of the woman’s body part that sets it apart, as different, from a man’s body part.

And Carson early in her essay has noted:

High vocal pitch goes together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes fall into this category. Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable may be measured by the lengths to which Aristotle is willing to go in accounting for the gender of sound physiognomically; he ends up ascribing the lower pitch of the male voice to the tension placed on a man’s vocal chords by his testicles functioning as loom weights.

Now, I think we need to make clear that no one is wanting anybody to be unscientific or to ignore the evidences of evolution or to call big men little girls (or vice versa) or any such thing that would make us blind – or deaf – to “difference.” What we are wanting to do is to pay attention to who is paying attention to the difference, what emotion (such as fear) that might evoke in them, and how they construct the world as a consequence.

(Anyone who wants to read Carson’s essay can find it online here and here and can buy it here. Liberman’s essay is here.)

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