Food & Culture

The Strange Reasons for Pilot Voice, Newscaster Voice, and Poet Voice

Have you ever been ... to a poetry reading ... where the poets all speak ... in same slow cadence? Or have you ever been on a plane, ah, and your captain starts speaking in the, ah, same voice you've always heard captains use? Roger that, us too. How is it that certain jobs or roles get associated with certain cadences or tones of voice — and who were the first to do them?

Jet Pilots and Journalists

The more you think about it, the stranger the "pilot voice" phenomenon is. It seems like every single pilot that we ever encounter has the exact same gently drawling accent and habit of filling in long gaps with a droning "ahhhh." They probably aren't all from the same hometown, so what's the deal? The answer is as satisfying as it is unexpected — pilots are just mimicking the voice of one of the heroes of the craft.

Does the name Chuck Yeager ring a bell? He was one of the Air Force's premier test pilots, an early candidate to be one of the first astronauts (back when they thought space vehicles would be more like planes than rockets), and, oh yeah, the guy who first broke the sound barrier. No wonder aspiring airmen and women would emulate his voice. However, as the late Tom Wolfe pointed out in "The Right Stuff," that particular tone might serve more of a purpose than hero worship. Besides sounding cool and composed, the voice has a calming effect. Who doesn't want a relaxed, in-control presence in the cockpit?

Let's consider another career path that seems to come saddled with its own specific vocal pattern: newscasters. All across the United States, TV journalists speak with the exact same non-accent accent, a sort of highly enunciated pronunciation that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Just like the pilot voice, this one is both inspired by the greats that came before and pronounced just-so for a good reason. The dialect known as "Broadcasting English" never truncates "fishing" to "fishin'," always pronounces every "-er," and can't quite be placed. That sort of non-local voice is job security to a news anchor — a thick Bronx accent won't fly in San Antonio, but a nondescript, non-local voice can go wherever the work is.

(Awkwardly) Spoken-Word Poetry

Even if you don't go to a lot of poetry readings, you probably have a sense of what "poet voice" is. You know — it's when you speak very softly, with lots of pauses, and in a rather pretentious monotone. But it's a little harder to actually place the first speakers of poetry voice, since artsy types have presumably been using it since long before the invention of recording equipment. Even if we can't pin down the origin, one new piece of research helps explain why poets do it — and why it might be kind of annoying.

By comparing recordings of historical and contemporary poets with recordings of people speaking more conversationally, the linguists were able to track 12 different attributes that seemed to map onto a spectrum of poet-speak to human-speak. Those attributes included things like reading speed and pause length, as well as more complicated elements such as pitch acceleration, or the speed at which the vocal pitch changes. Poet voice, it turns out, is strongly marked by slow pitch acceleration, meaning that while the pitch might go up or down, it does so at a slow, rolling pace.

Since more natural speech patterns uses pitch for emphasis, that pump-brake style of speaking tends to strike us as unemotional, detached, and even unnatural. No wonder it gets sort of grating after awhile. Employing the voice does send a message to the audience, though ("This is a piece of Serious Art"), and in that sense, it might serve a social purpose. We're just glad we don't have to hear it all the time.

There's a lot more to the story of Chuck Yeager and the first Americans in outer space than just that soothing drawl. Check out the definitive book on the subject, "The Right Stuff" by the late Tom Wolfe, and learn all there is to know about those early extraterrestrial flyboys. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How Do Accents Work?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. An accent refers to the way a language is pronounced, whereas a dialect refers to that plus the grammatical rules used in speech. 00:21

  2. When a group becomes distinct, through dress or food or other cultural markers, their accent also becomes distinct. 01:29

  3. The perception of an accent being high- or low-status isn't inherent to the accent. 05:04

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 1, 2018

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