‘YouTube Voice:’ The linguistics behind the phenomenon

Molly Wood Dec 22, 2015
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‘YouTube Voice:’ The linguistics behind the phenomenon

Molly Wood Dec 22, 2015
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Have you ever watched YouTube videos and thought the vloggers and hosts sound the same? Well,you’re not alone.

That’s what happened to Julie Beck, senior associate editor at The Atlantic. She says she was watching a video from the PBS Idea Channel and realized the host, Mike Rugnetta, sounded exactly like the Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green.

“I was like, ‘Wow, they are talking exactly the same way. I wonder if they are friends or something’ … But I started watching a lot of other YouTube videos and then seeing that something similar seemed to be happening,” she said.

After she named her discovery — “YouTube Voice” — Beck set out to investigate the phenomenon.

She called Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University, who studies electronically mediated communication, and asked her to walk her through it.

“Aspiration is something that naturally happens with certain consonants — I think its ‘p,’ ‘ t’ and ‘k’ normally — and if you heard when I just said those letters, there is normally a little bit of puff of air that comes out of your mouth anyway when you say those,” Beck said. “So if you say ‘keep’ for example, there is a little puff of air that comes out when you say ‘keep.’ But a lot of times in these videos you will hear people over aspirating so the puff of air is extra pronounced so instead of ‘keep’ it will be ‘keep.’

She says even though she’s watched only a small selection of YouTube videos speaking strategies are a common occurrence.

“A lot of these very popular accounts, you will see them using some of these strategies: be it aspiration, be it drawing out consonants, drawing out vowels and they are all just different ways of emphasizing words,” Beck said.

She said people use these strategies in speech all the time, but for YouTube the focus is on audience engagement.

“I think it’s probably because a lot of them are just sort of talking to the camera, without a lot of action to hold people’s attention, so they are holding people’s attention vocally,” Beck said.

Additional Production by Praveen Sathianathan.

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