Little voices of distraction

HAS THE WHOLE country been sucking on helium balloons?

The singsong, Valley Girl-ish vocal style that was once the exclusive domain of actual Valley Girls (and anyone who worked at a tanning salon) is infiltrating a host of unlikely venues. From Ivy League campuses to workplace conference rooms, we're hearing elongated vowel sounds (think "yeaaah" and "whatahver"), prodigious mumbling and, of course, declarative sentences turned into questions.

And if you think that's bad, you should hear how girls are talking.

Last month, the public radio program "Marketplace" aired a story on the prevalence of grown women speaking in high-pitched, babyish voices. It cited the example of Monica M. Goodling, the 33-year-old attorney (and Justice Department appointee) who testified before Congress in a voice that seemed more appropriate to Smurfette than to a government official with something to say about fired U.S. attorneys. "Marketplace" suggested that this girlish cadence signaled a feminist backlash, a sonic corollary to bikini waxes and baby-doll dresses.

I'm wary of slapping the trend label on any old phenomena, but I do wonder if this baby-voice thing is on the upswing. I listen to a lot of talk radio (the perils of working from home are legion), and I'm consistently amazed at the number of female callers who, despite seeking advice about their second mortgage or their third divorce, sound like they're 12. In real life, too, serious business is being conducted in the style of a Chipmunks recording. I recently overheard a woman who looked like an executive yammering on her cellphone in the same voice you hear in talking dolls. If you closed your eyes, you'd swear she was wearing a onesie. In fact, she was in a Marc Jacobs suit.

I called Bob Corff, a Los Angeles speech coach, who has been working for 27 years with actors, broadcasters and other professionals who need to sound good, and asked what he thought about the baby-voice syndrome.

"Many women have voices that do not match their bodies," he told me. "One of the reasons I think women do it is that it's nonthreatening. In this country, we push the little-girl thing, whereas in Europe, it's more popular to be a woman. Even the movie stars here are girlish."

Corff thinks a high-pitched voice that rises at the end of sentences signifies a lack of accountability for one's words. He also pointed out that in a culture that tends to have a hair-trigger reaction to even the mildest form of dissent, speaking with authority can be a dangerous prospect. "Years ago, people prided themselves on communicating," Corff said. "Today, they're afraid they'll get in trouble for saying the wrong thing. When your speech dies away or goes up at the ends of phrases, you're saying, 'I'm not sure what I mean,' and sometimes people feel safer that way."

While baby voices and "up talk" often go hand in hand, they're really distinct entities. Speaking in questions is learned behavior (its primary classrooms being slumber parties, malls and, of course, New Jersey and the entire San Fernando Valley). But maybe high-pitched voices are a function of physiology? Does it have to do with the size of your body or your vocal cords?

Claire Corff (Bob's wife) is also a speech and dialect coach and a self-confessed former high-pitched person. She told me that the vast majority of women who believe they're simply cursed (or blessed) with girlish voices are simply wrong.

"I've never met anyone who has a naturally high voice," she said. "Yes, smaller people have shorter vocal chords, which make the voice higher. But women want to please, so they actually pull the vocal chords up. And after a while, the chords will kind of stick there."

Neither of the Corffs was willing to say there was a palpable upsurge in baby-voiced women, just a never-ending supply of them. And although Claire Corff mentioned that some of her students developed high-pitched voices in reaction to the more aggressive cadence of their feminist mothers, I wonder if what's really going on here is more Pavlovian than political. In contemporary American culture, women seem to be rewarded not for being grown-ups but for assuming the qualities of little girls. Whether it's erasing the lines off our faces or wearing the same size jeans we wore in high school, what we want most is to hear how little we've changed.

That is, unless we're trying to prove that we've changed. In what was perhaps the only remotely interesting thing about Larry King's fresh-from-jail interview with Paris Hilton (whose name will never, ever be uttered in this column again, I swear), the uber-girlish socialite expressed a desire to improve her voice.

"When I get nervous or shy," she told King, "my voice gets really high…. That's something I'm trying to change about myself."

If Hilton can do it, anyone can. And if she can't, I think there's a job opening at the Department of Justice.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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