Just Talkin’

A week or two ago, in a sleepless spell in the middle of the night, I happened upon a radio program in which an intelligence woman was interviewing a female Professor in an area of science and they were joined by another smart woman, there to add her views, comments and opinions. All of them were conversing in ‘sexy-baby-speak’ and the incongruity, the irritation and the sadness overwhelmed me. I began by loosing concentration, couldn’t ‘get’ what they were discussing at all and ended by switching off, wondering, as I had been doing for some time, what it’s all about, this funny voice thing. I had understood that it was about disempowerement, but what is so bothering is that young women seem pushed into making this choice. I turned to our old friend Wikipedia and explored some links. Here’s what I discovered –

“If women always sound like they’re asking for approval or agreement, they seem less sure of themselves,” says Mary-Ellen Drummond, a communications consultant from Santa Fe in California. Someone in the same line of business, Diane DiResta (author of Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch and Pizzazz), is still more categorical.

“I believe it is also an outgrowth of our politically correct society where people tiptoe around their beliefs by monitoring their language,” she says. “Uptalk is a form of this politically correct language. It’s as if a person’s tentative tone allows them to retract the statement if it is met with criticism or disapproval. People are afraid to take a stand.”

And she agrees that it’s a menace to women trying to clamber the corporate ladder: “Uptalk robs them of credibility and authority. It is especially disempowering for women.”


“Vocal fry is also believed to serve the same linguistic function – to make the speaker sound more authoritative. I like this school of thought because it holds a much more positive view of young women in understanding that they’re actually really inventive and progressive in their use of language, rather than unintelligent and superficial.

Instead of holding age-old sexist biases against young women, it actually seeks to understand the underlying functions of their communication styles.



is an English language speech pattern or sociolect, first described by U.S. media in 2013, in which young women affect the high-pitched voice of pre-pubescent girls

The speech patterns at issue are described as sounding “like Minnie Mouse on helium”,[1] or a “mousy squeak [with a] handful of gravel tossed across the very top of the register”.[2] Actress Lake Bell described the style as an amalgamation of “valley-girl voice” (characterized by “upspeak“) and high pitch.[1]

“Sexy baby voice” is controversial in the context of discussions about gender equality and related issues. Bell[3] and others have argued that the use of “sexy baby voice” is problematic because it demeans the speaker, who appears as a “submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object”,[2] or because its use in film and television, as a tool of sexual manipulation, exploits contemporary culture’s “fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages”.[4]

Other commentators questioned the purpose of critiquing the use of the speech pattern, asserting that “picking at the vocal quirks of your own gender is just as much of a nuisance as harping on the bodies that belong to them”.[2] Phonetician Mark Liberman wrote that it was not clear that the discussion about “sexy baby voice” referred to any identifiable speech style, instead of to a “long list” of vocal features people objected to in female speech. He also noted previous discussions about similar female speech patterns in earlier decades, such as a controversy about “uptalk” in the 1990s.[5]

And an educator writes –

“If, as Lake Bell asserts, baby voice is learned, it can be unlearned through practice, positive reinforcement, and more practice. However, before tackling the symptom, I wanted to get at the root of the problem. I turned to psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley. She explained that younger children tend to use this form of vocal regression to cope with anxiety, when they are feeling overwhelmed or battling intrusive, distressing emotions and thoughts. For older children, she said, “it can stem from low self-esteem or is used to seek attention from peers and/or adults.”





What’s it got to do with adoption?  My guess is that you will find many young female adoptees, disempowered by their losses and their situation, exhibiting those losses and traumas in the use of ‘sexy-baby-speak’. Please let me know if I’m wrong. I look forward to hearing from you….


4 thoughts on “Just Talkin’

  1. It’s wonderful to find you writing about this Von. It’s always bothered me when people talk down to children or do baby talk. Or when women do it to appear sexy. But I also have issues with people who create and use academic-speak to speak over us. I have no idea what can be done about it….

    • Thanks Trace. The Teacher who grappled with it seemed to have some answers when she pointed out how it was disempowering and engaged with girls to help them overcome it. I’d rather listen to someone using academic-speak than a young woman disempowering herself!! Happy International Women’s Day!

  2. Hi Von, I really enjoyed reading this. I checked out the sociolect wiki page: Who ever wrote the AAVE section was obviously sounds like a white person who has no idea what AAVE is actually like.

    Like Trace, I actually find academic speak far more offensive. Academic speak is classist and so inherently racist. People who speak and write in academic language (all of Academia) work to keep learning from common people.

    • Thanks for your comment. So very true and has been going on for so very long. I find here in Australia academics are for the most part a little less classist and they probably wouldn’t get away with the racism quite so easily. Nevertheless the halls of academe hide many who probably couldn’t exist in the outside world.

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