Charm School: Velvet Voice or Vocal Fry?
My mother and I have a little code that passes between us when some aspect of modern life slaps us in the face. The code is “W. H. T. G. L.,” which stands for “Whatever Happened to Gracious Living?” Over the years “W. H. T. G. L.” has been applied to everything from offensive language to sloppy table manners to modern modes of dress. Lest we sound like a pair of mean-spirited killjoys, understand that we only wish that society would realize that there is a time and a place (and, indeed, such a thing as) “company manners.” (And since there’s always room for improvement, a “W. H. T. G. L.” moment often serves as a warning to ourselves just as much–and perhaps even more–than a critique of other people.)
In the spirit of W. H. T. G. L., I’ll be offering an occasional “Charm School” lesson for modern readers. This observation is purely my opinion and you are free, as always, to take it or leave it. But I hope you will consider the merits of these “antique” manners before completely dismissing them as outmoded and useless.
Here we go!
WHAT WE SAY AND HOW WE SAY IT, PART I: VOICE
I’ve noticed a trend, particularly among young women, to cultivate a raspy, hoarse voice. Think of the last time you had laryngitis. That’s the desired sound: thick, croaky, phlegmy.
At first I thought that I was imagining things, or that perhaps there’d been an epidemic of sore throats or pack-a-day smoking, but recently I discovered that this is an actual trend called “vocal fry” or “creaky voice.” Ladies are even offering each other advice on how to achieve this wondrous effect. (My personal favorite tip: Scream into a pillow until you are hoarse.) Who cares if it wrecks your vocal chords as long as it sounds cool, right?
To my ears, this vocal quality sounds harsh, tough, and unattractive, but of course I am an Old Person. I’m also personally burdened with the flat, nasal tones of the Midwest and so have no call to criticize. Still, I can’t help but contrast this “vocal fry” trend with the soft, melodious voices valued by earlier generations.
Here’s what the inimitable Emily Post had to say about ladies’ voices in the 1922 edition of Etiquette, her classic tome on proper behavior:
“First of all, remember that while affectation is odious, crudeness must be overcome. A low voice is always pleasing, not whispered or murmured, but low in pitch. Do not talk at the top of your head, nor at the top of your lungs. Do not slur whole sentences together; on the other hand, do not pronounce as though each syllable were a separate tongue and lip exercise.
“As a nation we do not talk so much too fast, as too loud. Tens of thousands twang and slur and shout and burr! Many of us drawl and many others of us race tongues and breath at full speed, but, as already said, the speed of our speech does not matter so much. Pitch of voice matters very much and so does pronunciation—enunciation is not so essential—except to one who speaks in public.
“Enunciation means the articulation of whatever you have to say distinctly and clearly. Pronunciation is the proper sounding of consonants, vowels and the accentuation of each syllable.
“There is no better way to cultivate a perfect pronunciation; apart from association with cultivated people, than by getting a small pronouncing dictionary of words in ordinary use, and reading it word by word, marking and studying any that you use frequently and mispronounce. When you know them, then read any book at random slowly aloud to yourself, very carefully pronouncing each word. The consciousness of this exercise may make you stilted in conversation at first, but by and by the “sense” or “impulse” to speak correctly will come.
“This is a method that has been followed by many men handicapped in youth through lack of education, who have become prominent in public life, and by many women, who likewise handicapped by circumstances, have not only made possible a creditable position for themselves, but have then given their children the inestimable advantage of learning their mother tongue correctly at their mother’s knee.”
Later we’ll tackle part II of “What We Say and How We Say It””: Content. Until then, sparkle on!