As a professor at a large northeastern university, I spend a fair amount of time listening to students talk. Particularly before class, as I do some last minute shuffling of my notes or plugging in my PowerPoint, I’ll overhear conversations. There’s a common—but assuredly not universal—male speech pattern I’ve noticed. It’s a kind of low, back-of-the-throat mumble I started to call a brumble (i.e., bro + mumble).
Two years ago, there was quite the uptick in interest on how some women speak with a kind of rasp or “creaky voice”—an example is Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl--and the term “vocal fry” became quite popular. This corresponded with other supposed concerns over how women speak, like using “uptalk” or, more technically, “high rising terminal” (i.e., ending every sentence with a high note, implying a question) and, like, dropping “like” in a sentence. The idea of vocal fry becoming problematized as a characteristic of young women’s speech was seen as pervasive enough that even feminists like Naomi Wolf spoke out to say that women should drop vocal fry and “reclaim their strong female voices.”
But also, and importantly, linguists have pointed out that there are plenty of examples of male vocal fry as well, and yet this fact never really bubbled to the surface in great vocal fry debate of 2015. (Special thanks to my colleague Joe Pater for pointing me to this resource.) There may never be the same amount of concerned think pieces about a crisis in male speaking patterns for a variety of reasons. For one, we tend to focus on what men say more than the manner in which they say it.
So, let’s unpack the brumble a bit. What explains it? If it’s communicating something, what is it communicating? What does it say about gender?
There are two characteristics as I see it. First there is the low talking. There is a biological argument for why men aim to speak in a lower register, a key characteristic of what I’m calling the brumble. Linguist and author of an analysis of male and female speaking patterns called Duels and Duets, notes that low speaking voices are correlated with high testosterone levels and more assertive personalities, which women attend to be attracted to. (In the same Times article, linguist Ikuko Patricia Yuasa notes that vocal fry could very well be a response of women trying to lower their voices as a way to adopt a more masculine speech pattern.)
Another characteristic is a kind of mumbling of words. Sentences seem to be caught in the mouth. This part of the brumble might seem like insecurity or uncertainty. An example of this is the rise of what Wiz Khalifa called “mumble rap,” the increase in indecipherable lyrics in hip hop. (I had no idea this was a thing until someone else mentioned it to me. Thanks to my friend Darren!) Take a look at a discussion about it on Billboard here, which includes Desiigner slowly talking through his otherwise difficult-to-understand song “Panda.”
Just as uptalk might be used as a form of controlling the listener, the low talking and mumbling combined could force a listener to pay closer attention to the speaker. These qualities of the brumble might also be a move away from the enunciation and articulation of women or a subconscious repudiation of gay male speech patterns. As Michael Kimmel points out, homophobia—men’s fear of other men—drives American masculinity, and is the animating condition of the dominant definition of masculinity in America. He says that the “reigning definition of masculinity is a defensive effort to prevent being emasculated.” And so, as applied here, we see that the male speaking pattern of the brumble can be compared with how most women and many gay men, who are more likely to enunciate, speak. Heteronormative masculinity, then, pushes men to speak in lower and inarticulate patterns.
And then there’s certainly something to the content of what people say, and the way that it plays out among men and women. “Bro talk,” in the world of Wall Street, “produces a force field of disrespect and exclusion that makes it incredibly difficult for women to ascend the Wall Street ladder.” Frances Kendall, in Understanding White Privilege, wrote:
I remember working with a law school in which white men heavily dominated the faculty. They used lots of sports metaphors (doing an end run, Monday morning quarterbacking, and so on), with legal jargon thrown in for good measure. I suggested that this was not a particularly welcoming trait in their school, that in fact it was sexist, but they paid little attention. I made my point by speaking for about five minutes in dressmaking terms: putting a dart in here, a gusset there, cutting the budget on the bias so it would be more flexible, using a peplum to hide a course that might be controversial. The women in the room laughed; the men did not find it humorous….Language is power, make no mistake about it. It is used to include and exclude and to keep people and systems in their places.
(As an aside, did you know that men’s speech patterns get more creative when a woman they are attracted to is most fertile? And here’s an amazing paper on the many uses of ‘dude’ among ‘dudes.’)
So, on the one hand, these speaking styles are common across genders and can be quite purposeful rather than non-productive. On the other hand, when we respond to them differently, we’re saying something about the way that gender is placed in a hierarchy: when women speak low it’s a concern, when men do it, it’s natural and acceptable (even biologically determined); if young women adopted a kind of inarticulate speech pattern, you’d better believe that there would be New York Times articles about a crisis in insecure young women.