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Dude, your voice sucks, y'know

Irritating vocal patterns are a linguistic scourge

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In a recent television interview, Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said "y'know" 72 times in three minutes.

In a way it was refreshing to hear that long-infuriating verbal crutch resurrected with such gusto, because "y'know" has been largely eclipsed by even more unnerving verbal tics these days.

We have uptalking, where the speaker ends each sentence with a rising intonation that makes everything sound like a question. We have the unnamed-habit where women who've seen too many Disney cartoons speak with a Minnie Mouse-like squeak. Then there's the leading linguistic scourge of today, vocal fry.

It's a fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon characterized by a speaker lowering his or her voice to an unnaturally low frequency at the end of a sentence. It has been seen (and heard) for decades, but has gained currency via the Kardashians, America's first family of vapidity.

"These are just speech patterns that may be popularized by some famous people kids look up to," says Claudio Milstein, a speech scientist with the Cleveland Clinic. "The good thing is most kids outgrow it."

A speech scientist with clinical interests in laryngology and voice disorders, Milstein says that vocal fry and these other speech blips have been going on for centuries. They have been seen "in every single culture. Maybe today because of access to the media it's more pervasive. But kids imitating ways of speaking that go with cultural shifts is nothing new."

Expressions such as "you know" and "like," he says, "are like crutches to fill gaps when there's not much concept behind it."

Joni Brander, a Chicago-based TV talent coach and corporate presentation trainer (, agrees with Milstein that vocal fry has been around for a long time, but she points out that young people are picking it up again as a form of communication.

"It's one thing if a singer uses it to highlight various notes, but quite another if used in conversation," she says. "Besides being annoying and immature, vocal fry is very hard on your vocal cords, if overdone."

Worse is popular culture's impact on singers, Milstein says. Shows such as The Voice and American Idol have spawned a new generation of singers who are imitating people they see on TV, sometimes to their detriment.

"It's a style of singing called belting. (They sing with) a lot of power. If you don't do it in the right way this can cause injuries to the vocal folds (membranes in the larynx). We see a number of young singers who do this with no training and they do damage."

These vocal quirks drive people -- mainly older people -- crazy. And when "older" people are the ones doing the hiring out in the real world, sounding like a creaking gate or using "y'know" 72 times in three minutes may not be the best way to launch a career.

"These things give an impression to the listener that the child is less intelligent," Milstein says.

When Brander is working with clients in television or the corporate world, she sees a variety of vocal issues -- poor inflection and vocal tone, pitch, pace and volume problems among them.

"Some people have patterns of speech and/or regionalisms that could limit their current job or future job prospects," she explains. "Younger women sometimes end sentences with an upward inflection, a questioning tone, which makes them sound unsure and immature. Both young men and women sometimes pepper their sentences with 'dude' and 'like' without realizing it's unprofessional."

Milstein suggests that parents and educators stress the importance of proper communication, an interest in literature and having good role models. Let a person know that these negative forms of communication are less effective and make listeners think of them as less bright than they actually are. Of course, you can tell young people these things, he points out, but "kids will do what kids want to do."

Brander says parents should set the bar by establishing guidelines and insisting on proper speech at home. That way, even if a teenager employs slang and other shoddy lingual habits with his or her friends, the child will know the difference when it really counts, such as in a job interview.

-- Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 D12

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