From Uptalk To Downtown 'New Yawk,' Robert Siegel Explored How We Speak

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 11:06 am

For 30 years, Robert Siegel has pretty much been the voice of All Things Considered. He steps down from the host chair on Jan. 5.

During his career, one of the recurrent themes of his reporting has been language — and how we speak.

Back in 1993, he reported on what he heard as something new in speech.

"I heard it mostly from young women, but it was spreading among men, too: the phenomenon of making statements that sound like questions, a rising intonation," he tells All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish.

For that story, Siegel went to a local high school and talked with a group of nine students without telling them what the specific story angle was. None of the five boys used the rising intonation. Of the four girls — bright, articulate, self-assured — the speech of three of them was peppered with what is now known as uptalk.

"The best explanation that I heard of what was happening to American speech was that it was a deferential intonation," Siegel says. "A rising intonation — or uptalking — implied, 'I'm not insisting on this, I'm just proposing it.'"

Many years later, the subject came up again during an interview with actress Lake Bell about her movie about voiceover artists, In A World.

Over the years, Siegel has talked to a voice coach who trains rock stars how to scream without shredding their vocal cords, examined Sarah Palin's accent when she became John McCain's running mate in 2008, and earlier this year did a story about President Trump's speech and vocabulary.

Siegel traces his interest in speech back to his parents.

"I grew up in New York City. My parents were first-generation English speakers, their parents spoke Yiddish," he says. "They were both college graduates and speech was very important to them."

As the linguist William Labov told Siegel in 1999 for a story about New York speech, New York City is the rare place that stigmatizes its own accent.

And that was true in the Siegel household. Joseph Siegel, Robert's father, was a public high school teacher.

"In applying to be become a department chair, as he explained to me many years later, he'd been failed on his speech test," Robert Siegel says. "The thing you weren't supposed to sound like in the New York City public school system was a New Yorker."

The elder Siegel had to retake the entire exam, and his son recalls seeing his father using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, "practicing diphthongs and recording and listening back, to advance in the school system, which he eventually did."

"For my parents, good speech was a mark of being educated," Siegel says. "And a mark of also being American."

Early in his career at NPR, Siegel worked in London for four years, beginning in 1979, and would communicate with his parents by tape cassette — he would record himself, his wife and two young daughters and mail the tapes back to New York; his parents would record themselves and send those cassettes to London.

Here's one of those recordings.

"I came to realize that my parents sounded a lot more like me than like their parents," Siegel says. "Of my four grandparents, only one went to night school, straight off the boat, to learn how to read and write English."

"And I think speech is a big part of the immigrant family experience, it's about changing language or changing accent."

One of Siegel's favorite recordings of accents also comes from the London era. It's of two little girls, one who is 7 years old and the other is about 4.

Those girls are Erica and Leah, Siegel's two daughters. Unlike their grandparents, Erica and Leah's accents didn't reflect their parents, but rather classmates in London.

"If you listen closely, you'll hear that Leah, the younger one, has a more working class accent than Erica because we ran out of money for the fancy nursery school," Siegel says. "She dropped about half the letters in the alphabet."

After all these years, Siegel says he thinks he still sounds like "a New Yorker of a particular stripe."

And, during an interview with Tom Waits, he realized something else, too. When Siegel asked Waits about his distinctive voice, the singer-songwriter turned the table and asked his interviewer: "What about yours?"

"What I realized is, that when I was young, I wanted to sound older," Siegel says. "Now that I'm older, I don't mind sounding a little younger."

Art Silverman and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio story. NPR RAD researchers Julie Rogers and Brin Winterbottom contributed, and Maureen Pao adapted it for the Web from a script written by Robert Siegel.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A big change is coming to NPR. Next month, our co-host Robert Siegel is stepping down and retiring. He has pretty much been the voice of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for 30 years. And you name it; Robert's done an interview about it. Between now and January 5 when Robert says goodbye, we will hear some moments from his long and wide-ranging tenure. For today's conversation, I'm turning it over to our colleague Audie Cornish, who happily took a break from maternity leave just to interview Robert.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: OK, Robert, so finally after all this time...

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Sitting next to you, I actually get to turn. Usually you're sitting to my right. And I get to ask you a couple questions.

R. SIEGEL: Go for it.

CORNISH: OK (laughter). So they let me go into the archives. And every host has some, like, pet ideas and themes. And for you, it's about language...

R. SIEGEL: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...And how we speak. Am I onto something?

R. SIEGEL: I plead guilty. And my personal obituarists, producer Melissa Gray, has dug up the evidence...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

R. SIEGEL: ...To prove that. And I'm going to start with you back in 1993 when I thought we were pretty early in jumping on what I heard as something new in speech. I heard it mostly from young women, but it was spreading among men, too - the phenomenon of making statements that sound like questions, a rising intonation. And my colleague, producer Margaret Low, said that she had a great example of that in a voicemail message she played for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAUREEN O'NEIL: Hi, Margaret, this Maureen O'Neil from Harper Business. I'm following up on a book I sent you entitled "Shogun Management: How North Americans Can Thrive In Japanese Companies" by Bill Byham.

CORNISH: OK, so you're saying this is the early '90s...

R. SIEGEL: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...You're tracing this phenomenon back to.

R. SIEGEL: Well, that's when we did a story about it. And we were pretty early. And Margaret and I went to, among other places, a local high school, and we talked with a group of students without telling them what our angle was, what the story was.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

R. SIEGEL: We spoke for about an hour, and most of the girls did the same thing at the end of their sentences as that young woman on the tape. We asked them about their summer plans, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I'm planning to go on an Outward Bound to Oregon.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Basically I have my summer worked out. I'm going to be working at the NIH.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I've got the same job I did last year. I work as a secretary out in Virginia, and I'm also going to be volunteering.

R. SIEGEL: Where in Virginia?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: In Reston for a firm called PC Research (ph).

R. SIEGEL: Now, these three girls - Vanessa Wolfman (ph), Nancy Cho (ph) and Stephanie Russick (ph) - struck us as extremely bright, articulate, self-assured young people. Their use of this intonation was scattered in their speech. It wasn't in every other sentence.

CORNISH: Wait a second. So did you ask...

R. SIEGEL: That's me, yes.

CORNISH: ...Young men about it?

R. SIEGEL: Yeah, but the men didn't do it in that case.

CORNISH: Oh, OK.

R. SIEGEL: They didn't do it. And the best explanation that I heard of what was happening to American speech was that it was a deferential intonation. A rising intonation or up-talking implied, I'm not insisting on this; I'm just proposing it. Since it seemed to start with young women, it probably would've infuriated the actress Lake Bell, whom I interviewed many, many years later 'cause she talked with me about her movie "In A World..." which was about voiceover artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LAKE BELL: I have been personally ruptured and unsettled by the trend - the vocal trend that I call sexy baby vocal virus talking. Not only is it pitch - so really high up. But it's also a dialect. It's, like, a speech pattern that includes up-talking and fry. So it's this amalgamation of really unsavory sounds that many young women have adopted. It's a pandemic in my opinion.

R. SIEGEL: And if you put all those together, it would sound like...

BELL: It would sound like this. And, like, we would just have this way of speaking. And it's not necessarily that I'm, like, stupid. It's just that what I'm saying makes me sound less-than.

R. SIEGEL: Lake Bell, by the way - no relation - is actually named Lake Siegel Bell.

CORNISH: OK. The thing is...

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: Just thought I'd throw that in there.

CORNISH: Yeah, no, thanks for throwing that in. The thing is, it doesn't end here, OK...

R. SIEGEL: No.

CORNISH: ...Because I'm going through, like, some of the subjects of the stories. And you've spoken to a voice coach who trains rock stars on how to scream basically without shredding their vocal chords. See what I did there with the shred. Anyway, you examine Sarah Palin's accent when she became John McCain's running mate in 2008. You also talked to linguists about words and word usage. And you did a story about President Trump and his speech and vocabulary.

R. SIEGEL: Yeah.

CORNISH: I mean, where does this interest actually come from?

R. SIEGEL: I think it comes from my parents. And I should say that I once did a story on the demise of the words mother and father in common speech in favor of mom and dad. I think we're about a generation away from students who study how Oedipus killed his dad and slept with his mom, which doesn't sound...

CORNISH: Yeah, it doesn't have the same...

R. SIEGEL: ...Tragic.

CORNISH: No, it...

R. SIEGEL: It doesn't sound very tragic.

CORNISH: I mean, it is tragic...

R. SIEGEL: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...But doesn't have the same ring (laughter).

R. SIEGEL: I grew up in New York City. My parents were first-generation English speakers. Their parents spoke Yiddish. They were both college graduates, and speech was very important to them. As the linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania told me in 1999 for a story about New York speech, New York City is the rare place, he says, that stigmatizes its own accent. Here's some of his recordings of people with New York accents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A real clever person believe they make their own fate. But a person who's had a lot of hard knocks and always been down, the underdog - well, that - I suppose that's the easiest excuse.

WILLIAM LABOV: Notice she doesn't say peyson (ph) but person.

R. SIEGEL: She's basically an R-less (ph) speaker, Labov says. But give her a set piece to read or a list of words, and social aspiration vies with habit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I remember where he was run over not far from our corner. He darted out about 4 feet before a car, and he got hit hard. We didn't have the heart to play ball or cards all morning. We didn't know we cared so much for him until he was hurt.

LABOV: So that mixture of...

R. SIEGEL: Hit hard.

LABOV: ...R - yeah. And...

R. SIEGEL: But we didn't have the heart.

LABOV: There's another passage wrote that brings the word guard and God together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She told him to ask the subway guard. My God, I thought, that's one sure way to get lost in New York City.

CORNISH: It's so weird because Hollywood is obsessed with the New York accent.

R. SIEGEL: (Laughter).

CORNISH: You know what I mean? And you're telling me you didn't want it.

R. SIEGEL: It was certainly stigmatized in my household growing up. My father actually was a public school teacher - high school teacher. And in applying to become department chair, as he explained to me many years later, he'd been failed on the speech test. And at the - you know, the thing you weren't supposed to sound like in the New York City public school system was a New Yorker. Or you weren't supposed to sound like the kind of New Yorker we just we just heard. So...

CORNISH: Yeah. I'm stunned there was a speech test, actually (laughter).

R. SIEGEL: No. And the way my dad explained it to me many years later, it was one of the most subjective parts of the examination, a process where they could get you for politics or something or you didn't - whom you'd crossed in the public school system because it was so subjective. He had to retake the entire exam, and I remember seeing him with an old-fashioned Wollensak tape recorder, an old reel-to-reel machine, practicing diphthongs and recording and listening back to advance in the school system, which he eventually did. For my parents, you know, good speech was a mark of being educated and a mark of also being American.

CORNISH: Can I ask what he sounded like? I feel like we can all do an impression of our parents.

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: I can do better than that. (Laughter) Early in my life at NPR, I worked in London for four years, as you know. And before NPR bought flat-rate phone service for me, I would communicate with my parents by tape cassette. I'd record my wife and my two little girls and send them the tapes to New York. And my parents would then record themselves and send cassettes back to me. And this is what my parents sounded like in April of 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDITH SIEGEL: First we want to thank you for the perfectly wonderful tape. We enjoyed every minute of it.

JOSEPH SIEGEL: And tell Erica that we enjoyed her four and 20 blackbirds very, very much. And when I get in tune, if she'll permit me, I'll sing a duet with her on that song because I used to sing it to all of the grand - I sang it to you, too, Robert.

CORNISH: Oh, my God...

R. SIEGEL: Yeah.

CORNISH: I love this. Everybody go tape your parents right now.

R. SIEGEL: Do it. Do it. Erica, by the way, whom my father referred to there, is my older daughter. And I came to realize that my parents sounded a lot more like me than like their parents. Of my four grandparents, only one went to night school straight off the boat to learn how to read and write English, and he addressed my mother in English. And I think that speech is a big part of the immigrant family experience. It's about changing language or changing accent. I've met your parents. I've met your parents, who - and you don't talk like your parents. They have...

CORNISH: No, no.

R. SIEGEL: ...Real Jamaica speech.

CORNISH: Yeah. Although in Jamaica, people say they sound like Yankees...

R. SIEGEL: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Not in the way you would use the phrase Yankee (laughter).

R. SIEGEL: No.

CORNISH: But they get called Yankees.

R. SIEGEL: So on the subject of whom we grew up speaking like, I want to play you my favorite recordings of accents. I've told you about the cassettes that I made in London to send to my parents. Here are two little girls from London circa 1981, one of them 7 years old, the other about 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICA SIEGEL: When it was my birthday, well, Brian (ph), my landlord, gave me a little pig. And his voice is like this - hee-hee (ph).

R. SIEGEL: This is a little toy called - what is it called?

LEAH SIEGEL: Major Morgan the Electric Organ, but I'm just going to go off to go to the toilet.

R. SIEGEL: You are. OK, well, we'll see you in a moment.

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: Yeah, that's Erica and Leah Siegel as Londoners who didn't learn to talk from their parents. They learned to talk from the kids in their in their school.

CORNISH: They don't still have those accents.

R. SIEGEL: No, they shook them off.

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: They shook them off pretty quickly after arriving. But - and in fact if you listen closely, you'll hear that Leah, the younger one, has a much more working-class accent than Erica 'cause we ran out of money for the fancy nursery school there. Erica...

CORNISH: (Laughter) Oh, really? Did someone go full cockney at some point?

R. SIEGEL: She dropped about half the letters in the alphabet, Leah.

CORNISH: So in the end, what do you think you sound like? I mean, people talk about people on NPR not having accents at all.

R. SIEGEL: I sound different than I did 25 years ago...

CORNISH: Yeah.

R. SIEGEL: ...Which is one of the lessons of this of this (laughter) peculiar exercise. I think I feel more comfortable about speaking than I did when I started doing this. To me, I still sound like a New Yorker of a particular stripe.

CORNISH: Maybe moved up a few blocks.

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: I think...

CORNISH: I'll say it.

R. SIEGEL: North of East 14th Street.

CORNISH: Yeah.

R. SIEGEL: No, I am - I think something you can look forward to over the next 30 years, Audie, is coming to feel just a lot more comfortable about doing this and the microphone being a friendly ear rather than a menacing one. So I think I sound pretty much the way I am.

CORNISH: Well, I know I love listening to your voice. And even though I'm from Boston, I haven't held your New York accent against you.

(LAUGHTER)

R. SIEGEL: I could also say that I once interviewed Tom Waits, who has one of the most interesting voices...

CORNISH: Yes.

R. SIEGEL: ...In the world. And I asked him about his voice. And he turned the tables on me. He said, what about your voice? And I said, well, what I realize is that when I was young, I wanted to sound older. Now that I'm older, I don't mind (laughter)...

CORNISH: Right.

R. SIEGEL: ...I might sound - sounding a little younger.

CORNISH: Yeah.

R. SIEGEL: And he said pretty much the same thing about his speech. So I think that that happens to us over time.

CORNISH: Well, I like the idea now of you taking a little bit of a break, let's call it (laughter), but still listening, right? I feel like I'm still going get an email from you here and there (laughter)...

R. SIEGEL: If you'd like - if you would like, I will - I would happily do that.

CORNISH: ...Pointing out some of the changes in language. I so want your story ideas (laughter).

R. SIEGEL: It's a deal. It's a deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "LET'S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF")

SHAPIRO: That's my co-host Audie Cornish talking with Robert Siegel, who will end his long tenure as host of this program next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "LET'S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.