Sisterhood Blog

Talking While Jewess

By Elissa Strauss

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On the recent episode of Lexicon Valley, a podcast on Slate about “the mysteries of English,” podcaster and NPR On the Media host Bob Garfield caused quite the controversy when he took on what he finds to be an incredibly irritating verbal tic among young women.

“It’s almost exclusively among women and young women at that.” … “At some point, as they utter a sentence or phrase, somewhere between half way and the very end of the phrase, something happens to their voice as if they have a catch in their throat.”

This “catch in their throat” is know as vocal fry, and sounds kind of like a quick “ur’ mid-syllable. He goes on to call this obnoxious, vulgar and annoying.

These words, said with the typical steady, knowing lilt of a NPR host, did not go over well among women, including myself, who has often felt shame while doing what I think of as talking while Jewess.

Over at Jezebel, Madeleine Davis said:

“But who determines proper English? Historically, it’s people like Garfield. Older. Male. Educated. White.”

And fellow Slate contributor Amanda Hess, after pointing to studies showing that the vocal fry is actually received positively among a younger demographic, said:

“I suspect that the spread of “creaky voice” makes Garfield so mad because it represents the downfall of his own mode of communication, which is swiftly being replaced by the patterns and preferences of 11-year-old girls like Ida and her peers. As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard.”

I agree with their critiques, and would like to add to them one more reason why we should ignore Garfield, this one coming from a more personal place.

I was raised in the San Fernando Valley, yes THE Valley, by a bunch of Jewish transplants from Flushing, Queens. This pretty much makes me the SoCal version of Fran Drescher. Okay, maybe not that bad. But I would put a lot money on a linguist’s ability to place me as both a Valley Girl and a Jewish American woman (ahem, J.A.P.) after listening to me speak for a few minutes.

You see, I never stood a chance of sounding like Garfield, or the old, white gen-tul-men who have for so long set the tone for how respectable folks should speak.

From my mother and grandmother I inherited the habit of asking rhetorical questions, making my “o’s” sound like “a’s,” and sprinkling in Yiddishisms whenever English doesn’t cut it. From growing up in the Valley in the 80s (yes, I am for real), I picked up “likes,” “uhhhs” and upspeak, or ending my sentences on a high note. And, now that I think about it, I definitely “fry” my voice now and then. I just might be Garfield’s worst nightmare.

For years I worked hard to tone this down. While it was nearly impossible for me to rid myself of the “likes” (pesky little buggers), I was able to get rid of the upspeak and “uhs,” the Yiddish, and the Jewy, squeaky “what?” I knew that my voice sounded unprofessional or, worse, dumb, and I didn’t want to come off that way.

But as much as I tried to sound more NPRy, it never came naturally to me. And the fact is that my brain was so busy trying to sound smart that I actually ended up saying less interesting things.

And so I started to stop trying to sound like I went to prep school and let that Valley Fran Drescher out of her cage. I’m sure I sound silly, or worse, to guys like Garfield sometimes. And, well, I like totally sound silly to myself sometimes. The things is, I feel much more confident, and free, when I don’t have to self-edit every phrase that comes out of my mouth with the fear that I might reveal my less-than-sophisticated background.

So, if you are of the instinct to pepper your sentences with “likes,” are in the habit of dragging out your vowels now and then (the vocal fry), or would rather say “meshugene” or “nebekh” instead of “crazy” or “poor thing,” I say go for it. Don’t worry what guys like Garfield think.


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