Your Voice Speaks Volumes: It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It, by Jane Setter

Review by Liz Dexter

I would like the message of this chapter to be that we should all be more tolerant of people’s voice quality and pitch ranges. As a woman, I’d like to ask others who might judge female speakers … to realize that this is a form of gender discrimination which contributes to other inequalities we see between men and women in society today.

Jane Setter is a professor of phonetics and has published widely on second language English and emerging varieties of English as well as on children’s speech and language disorders. She’s involved as a national teaching fellow in the UK, too, so is ideally placed to explain the sounds of language and the sociological, criminological and other repercussions of our accent, variety of English and vocal tics. 

Setter wears her learning lightly: she’s authoritative where she needs to be but also confiding, enthusiastic about her pet topics, generous towards her fellow linguists and happy to admit when something isn’t her specialism or even that someone “blows my suggestion out of the water” [on the Laurel/Yanny phenomenon]. Following the things that are her specialisms in the book gives us a varied and fun read which suits both people who have some knowledge in the field and the interested amateur. 

After a competent introduction to how speech works, from how a sound gets from one brain to another via the mouth and ear to how sounds in English are produced. Standard phonetic symbols are used for sounds (there is a list, but it might have been handy to have one inside one of the covers for ready reference) as well as the Standard Lexical Sets which group the vowels by their sounds (allowing for the shifts between accents) so it’s all clear and we get a good grounding in how it’s all produced. 

After this there’s a chapter on regional accents in mainly English English, including fascinating details of how those accents developed, then a really interesting chapter on myths about speech and language, with great topics like why can’t men make their voices sound ‘sexier’ and the blame put on particularly young women for various aspects of language production that the establishment doesn’t like. Setter debunks a lot of myths and stands up for women as language innovators. Here, as elsewhere, statements are footnoted, but it’s not an obscure academic tome but approachable and readable. 

Changing voices are covered in a chapter about professionals who use and think about their voices – chiefly singers and radio announcers, and also the voice coaches who work with actors and the like. The chapter on criminology and phonetics is fascinating, too, looking in detail at the work of speaker profiling, and using auditory and acoustic analysis to work out and back up whether two voices on two tapes might be the same voice (or not). 

It felt slightly odd to have the section on trans people’s voices and the changes and psychology involved put in with the section on machine voices that speak for those who cannot use their own voice, although I suppose this chapter is all about people representing themselves authentically. Setter is careful with her trans subjects and gives a thorough description of the research around trans voices, which is not as simple a topic as it might first appear (including a trans woman being disgruntled that she only got the option to be coached to produce a straight woman’s voice rather than a lesbian voice). It was interesting and moving to read of the attempts by various organisations to offer those without their own voices different and appropriate accents and ages to their machine-generated voices. 

Finally, we look at speakers of English around the world and how the perfectly valid forms of English used away from the UK can engender interesting but potentially difficult cultural disconnects without education and training, but also how these disconnects arise from an oppressive colonial history of world Englishes which means that those of us who speak Old Varieties of English (the UK, much of the US, Australia and South Africa) should count ourselves lucky that so many other people around the world want to speak English as a second or additional language. Setter admits in this section that she isn’t qualified to talk about race and ethnicity and English to a large extent; this is a shame, as she acknowledges, and I hope to read more on that topic in the future. 

In this book, I have attempted to throw some light on why it is that we are judged instantly by the way that we speak, and how one’s speech is an intrinsic part of that person’s individual and social identity.

I think Setter achieves that aim in this modern, inclusive and approachable book, a springboard if you wish to go deeper into some of the areas she covers. 

There’s a short annotated further reading list as well as proper endnotes, a rather moving epilogue and a decent index. This is also the first book I’ve read to feature QR codes in the text, which take you via your smartphone to YouTube videos and the like of relevant reference material!

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Liz got the only First in her English Language and Literature degree in the Language part, taking a particular interest in sociolinguistics. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Jane Setter, Your Voice Speaks Volumes: It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It (OUP, 2019; paperback ed. 2021). 978-0192843029, 229pp., ill. hardback.

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Comments

  1. The chapter on “world” English sounds quite interesting. I’m curious as to whether Setter’s discussion of “changing voices” explicitly addresses class issues, i.e. how individuals from one class change/modify their voice as an aspect of social mobility.

    1. There is quite a lot on this topic scattered through the book, both on voice as a marker of class and on the scorn often poured on people who are considered to have changed their voice in order to signify a change of class.

  2. Fascinating. We tend to take speech for granted, and do not realise all the implications of it. Thanks for the review.

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