Book week 2019: Jane Setter's Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Welcome to the first review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week.

I'm starting with the most recent book in the ol' pile of books from publishers:

Your voice speaks volumes
it's not what you say, but how you say it

by Jane Setter
Oxford University Press, 2019

Jane is Professor of Phonetics at the University of Reading (UK) and a recipient of the prestigious National Teaching Fellowship. (As you can see, we are on a first-name basis, as we travel some of the same Public Linguist circles.) I mention the teaching fellowship because it is relevant: Jane is excellent at making linguistics, particularly phonetics, crystal clear for the uninitiated. She uses that talent to great effect in her first book for the general public. 

This book speaks squarely to a general British audience — and to those who want to know more about English-language issues and attitudes in this country. I'm writing this on a day when my social media feed has given me (a) the story of a man wrongly arrested for public drunkenness in Brighton—because the police had mistaken his Liverpool accent for slurring and (b) a misreading of the relevance of accent in the US (as a means to say something about how accents are read in the UK). But I'd have at least two such things to tell you about on any other day when I might have written this post. Accents make the news in Britain because they matter inordinately. Differences that might not be discernible to those from other countries are imbued with layers and layers of meaning and subjected to piles and piles of prejudice. 

As I warned in the intro to Book Week, I have not been able to read the whole book. But I was able to get through much more than I thought I'd be able to in a single evening (four of the seven chapters: 1, 2, 3, 7). Part of my speed was because I could skim the bits that were explaining linguistic facts that I already knew. (That's not to say that the facts here are too basic. I've just had a helluva lotta linguistics education.) But it is a zippy read throughout. Setter uses personal and celebrity stories to demonstrate the everyday relevance of the phonetic and sociolinguistic facts that she's explaining. (Hey look, I seem to revert to last-name basis when I'm reviewing someone's book.) 

The chapters I haven't yet read are those that I'd probably learn the most from: on the use of linguistics in forensic investigations, on voices in performance (including accent training for actors and why singers' accents change in song—which she should know, since she's also a singer in a rock band), and on transgender and synthesized voices. I started with the chapter that relates most to my work ('English voices, global voices') and then went back to the beginning where I was most likely to run into things I already know. That's good from a reviewing perspective, because I can say with confidence that Setter covers well the things that I know need to be covered for her audience. But as I got further into the book, the more unexpected things I learned. I ended in the chapter on women's and men's voices, and I will tell you: I learned some things! To give an example, I liked her interpretation of a study in which women and men were asked to count to ten using various kinds of voices, including 'confident' and 'sexy'. It turns out men generally don't have a 'sexy voice' to put on, while women do, and this might tell us something about what we're sociali{s/z}ed to find sexy—and why.

It's hard to write about sound —and especially about linguistic sounds for a general audience. Writing for linguists is easy, because we have a lot of practice in using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). But you don't want to fill a book for non-linguists with letters that don't make the same sound as they make in English spelling, or letters they've never even seen before. Setter mostly talks about accents without having to get into the kind of phonetic minutiae that excite linguists and make laypeople glaze over. Where she does need technical terms (e.g. lexical sets), she explains them carefully and clearly. But happily for all of us, Setter wrote this book in the internet age. Throughout the book, there are scannable QR codes by which one can hear the sounds she's talking about. (You can get there without a QR reader too, the web URLs are provided.)

For readers of this blog with an interest in US/UK issues, there is plenty of comparison between UK and US and discussion of "Americani{s/z}ation". These are discussed with an assumed familiarity with British Englishes and less with American Englishes.

This book is an important instrument for fighting accentism and other linguistic prejudice in the UK. It might make a nice gift for that person in your life who says they "care deeply about the English language", but really what they mean is "I like to judge other people's use of the English language". 

But more than that, it is a great demonstration of what the study of phonetics can do. I really, really recommend it for A-level students in English (language) and their teachers, as it touches on many of the areas of linguistics taught at that level and would surely inspire many doable research projects. 

Let me just end with: congratulations on this book, Jane!


  1. Ooh that book has gone straight onto my wishlist; it sounds brilliant!

  2. I wonder about men with sexy voices, what the distribution compared to their sexuality is. It might not be something that's been looked at, but I know a fair few gay men for various reasons and I'd say they mostly have an equivalent of a sexy voice, or something they use in that form to other gay men. So when I read your comment that "most men don't have a sexy voice" it struck me as odd but, of course, gay men have rather different social expectations and drives to straight men.

    But, got to say the book sounds great, going to be buying that I think.

    1. The study I report on in the book (not carried out by me) only looked at heterosexual, cisgender male and female speakers and had only heterosexual cisgender listeners rate the voices. I don't think the research has been replicated with people from other sexualities / gender identities, but it would be very interesting to do so, IMO.

  3. I am bowled over by this review. Thank you, Lynne!

  4. Lynne, the reference you make in your review to "a misreading of the relevance of accent in the US" made me think of a conversation I had recently with my one-time college academic adviser, Don Smith, who grew up in eastern Tennessee in the late '30s/early '40s.

    Referencing an American movie from the early 1960s set in the world of Washington, D.C. politics (it may have been Gore Vidal's "The Best Man") I noted that in one scene a southern senator mispronounces the word "police" by saying it the same way I, a northerner, would -- puh-LEESE. When I told Don that I thought everyone in the American south pronounced the word POH-leese, however, he quickly told me that growing up he pronounced it as I did ... and that the other pronunciation, with emphasis on the first syllable, was viewed as a marker of inferior social status. (To be fair to Don I don't remember the exact words he used to explain the distinction -- but social status is definitely what he was talking about.)

    On the other hand, when I brought up what I considered the southern pronunciation of "insurance" -- with emphasis on the first syllable instead of the northern emphasis on the second -- he agreed that this distinction was more or less universally true.


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)