How You Say It | Katherine D. Kinzler

Summary of: How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—and What It Says About You
By: Katherine D. Kinzler


As you delve into the pages of ‘How You Say It’ by Katherine D. Kinzler, prepare to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of language, speech, and how they intertwine with our identities. The book examines the way we instinctively categorize people based on features like race, nationality, and even accents. With engaging anecdotes and real-life examples, Kinzler demonstrates the subtle social forces that influence our speech patterns. As you explore the book, you will learn about linguistic groupings, vocal inflections, mastering languages at various ages, and the connection between language and identity, as well as prejudice.

The Power of Vocal Inflection on Social Groups

In his book, documentary filmmaker David Thorpe explores how vocal inflection is a crucial element in generating different social groups in people of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. Thorpe shares his personal journey of coming out as gay and how his vocal mannerisms changed after this moment. He explains that voice modulation is more significant than mere sounds; it forms part of our identity.

Social groups are significant in human society, and we often categorize people based on different characteristics like nationality or religion. However, the importance of vocal groupings is often overlooked. The way we speak inevitably affects our social lives. We tend to socialize with individuals who speak the same language, accent, or tone. 

Thorpe cites sociolinguist Penelope Eckert’s study on teenagers in which she noted that social categories like jocks and burnouts influenced pronunciation. Similarly, different generations have adopted speech patterns such as upspeak and vocal fry, with each generation looking down on the other. These vocal changes are unconscious and merely a reflection of our social groups.

In conclusion, this book highlights that vocal inflection is not only an interesting linguistic phenomenon, but it also carries significant social implications. The way we speak influences the formation of social groups, and we often adapt our speech patterns to fit in.

Learn a Language Young

Mastering a new language is easier for children due to the brain’s higher malleability. Although adults can acquire a new language with sustained effort, they may never fully grasp all the nuances in pronunciation and grammar. The ability to learn a new language begins to diminish around age seven, and by 20, the decline has leveled out. The younger a person starts learning a language, the easier it is to learn and master it. Studies indicate that individuals’ native tongue is always the most natural and emotionally attached language for them.

The Power and Politics of Language

In the era of apartheid, language was used as a tool of oppression, driving a deep wedge between people. The importance of language to identity means it can also be a means of forming social bonds. However, linguistic differences can also drive people apart, with accent attitudes fueling stereotypes and linguistic insecurity leading to social barriers. These issues are explored in the context of how language shapes our sense of self and our relationships with others.

Speech: Our Most Important Identifier

The speech of an individual may be the most significant factor in determining our biases, according to the book. Evidence suggests that biases around language and speech may be more ancient and deeply rooted than any other divide. Many species use vocalizations to differentiate close relationships and social status. Language plays a more critical role in our identity than skin tone or nationality. A study conducted asked individuals to label faces as either German or Italian, where skin tone played a significant role at first. Still, when paired with voice samples, the speech influenced the participants’ evaluation. Those who spoke German perfectly regardless of their skin tone were labeled German. The way someone speaks is seen as more essential to their identity than how they look. Therefore, speech might be the most critical factor in determining our biases.

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