Sound Barrier We know so much about Monica Lewinsky, but have yet to hear her speak. Soon, that will change. What will her voice tell us?

October 14, 1998|By LINELL SMITH AND PATRICIA MEISOL | LINELL SMITH AND PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

Monica, Monica. America has fretted, dieted and shopped with this girl. We're saturated with visions of her beret, her perfect teeth, her cascade of hair. And we've heard all the intimate details of her inappropriate relationship.

We've heard it all.

Actually, we haven't.

We -- many of us, anyway -- have not yet heard Monica's voice. Not so much as a "No comment." And how can we possibly know her without hearing her?

When we finally hear it, will Monica's voice have the girlish, uptalk rhythms and flavors we associate with pampered Beverly Hills twentysomethings? Will her words steam with the breathy wistfulness of Marilyn? Will she evoke the nasal whininess of a Fran Drescher?

Sometime soon -- in a few weeks or maybe longer, officials say -- the House Judiciary Committee is expected to release edited copies of the tapes Linda Tripp made of her conversations with Lewinsky. Will her voice reveal something we don't know? A sense of irony? World-weary wisdom? Sincere bewilderment? Will it change what we think of her?

Rightly or wrongly, linguists say we form opinions about people more by how they speak than by what they say. We measure them by their voice: a British accent, a Southern drawl.

The tapes probably will confirm widely held stereotypes about female voices -- and young voices -- in a country where studies have shown that both men and women prefer listening to male voices. Then we'll make more judgments about Lewinskyfrom how fast she talks and from her tone: Sympathetic? Sarcastic? Enthusiastic? Desperate?

"Sometimes if you have a preconceived notion of a particular person, you'll find [in the voice] what you are looking for," says Colleen Cotter, an assistant professor in the linguistics department at Georgetown University.

Already, from the released Tripp transcripts, linguists are drawing conclusions based upon how the former intern uses language.

"What struck me in reading is that a very young person is talking," says JoAnne Brown, a historian of political language and assistant dean for undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. "The speech mannerisms were the speech mannerisms of a teen-ager and not of a professional political assistant. It only confirmed what I've heard said elsewhere: 'This is the youngest 23-year-old I've met.' The language was very unformed.

"What was difficult to discover from reading the transcript was if a lot of those hesitancies ... are from a lack of rhetorical skill or from concealment."

To academics a voice is not simply a voice. It's a subcontinent of personality with such territories as tone, emphasis, pacing, cadence and pitch.

Various vocal components create impressions of a person's confidence, in himself and in what he's saying. A rapid, uneven pace, for instance, can often indicate a person is uncertain, while a slower, evenly paced voice is associated with maturity, says Philip Backlund, professor of communications at Central Washington University in Washington.

The degree of Lewinsky's self-assuredness on the Tripp tapes could affect her image as victim or predator.

Cultural stereotypes also carry over to pitch. Traditionally, male voices were used in advertising to impart authority and persuade consumers; women's voices belonged to the historically inferior sex.

"We have assumed a lot of confidence in lower-pitched voices," says Backlund, "which is why most women on national news have a lower-pitched voice."

Cotter, the Georgetown linguist, notes that when women started becoming radio announcers in the 1920s, there was great

debate about whether women's voices were fit for public discourse. Today, women in corporate leadership positions have calculate their manner of speaking to indicate power -- for example, slow their pace and eliminate emotion-laden words.

"If we were evaluating a male White House intern the same age as Monica, from the same geographical area, with the same markers of youth in his speech, we probably would not judge him as negatively," Cotter says. "[Such comparisons] might show how we could be stacking the deck [against female voices]."

Dr. Judith Tingley, a psychologist in Phoenix who studies gender communications, also has noticed the negative perception of women's voices. She recently asked a group of men what they would most wish to change about women, and was surprised to hear them say they wished women's voices were less shrill and high-pitched. She says they may be reacting to an emotional intensity that women are apt to express.

"As a woman's voice is perceived as becoming more intense, it makes men uncomfortable and they back out either physically or mentally to avoid the discomfort."

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