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The day my voice broke (theguardian.com)
48 points by one-possibility 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

A fine arcticle, articulated aptly. I do take issue with this one sentence though:

> We are the only animal that can perform the miraculous feat of making the link between a specific vocal sound and an object that exists in the world.

I assume the author intended a more specific meaning (perhaps the assumption was that other animals communicate via a discernable "expressed emotional state" as opposed to actual words), but those words at face value are demonstrably false. All you have to do to prove it is look at any family of birds. Penguins are able to recognize their offspring's cries in a sea of cries on a crowded beach. Birds (and all creatures to an extent, who haven't yet gone extinct) have an amazing ability to recognize the sounds that their offspring produce, even when the final audial profile of that very specific sound is tainted by so many other competing profiles. If you've ever worked in sound design then you understand what an amazing accomplishment this is.

From a physical perspective, when two equal waveforms come together in a controlled space the resulting sound is doubled. By "resulting sound" I mean the final waveform produced by all sound producers in a space (a sound environment, in which each individual's perception of the environment is entirely dependent upon their position within that environment). And so imagine many birds sharing the same frequency as your child (we're birds now, for the rest of this argument), and those frequencies are overlapping - multiplying those particular portions of the resulting sound wave, and yet you are still able to find your kid. Animals can definitely make "the link between a specific vocal sound and an object that exists in the world."

Also see the 'smartest dog', who memorized the names of 1,022 individual toys and could make connections like 'ball' meaning any unfamiliar round object.



i have seen some videos of dogs pushing on voice activated buttons to 'talk'.

There was always possibility that dog was thought to press sequence of buttons to indicate something. A pavlovan reaction trained to look like dog is building a crude sentence.

But the Chaser studies are quite convincing that dogs are capable of linking speech to abstract general ideas. Its absolutely amazing.

My dog will grab my hand and put it on things he wants me to do “hands things” with: open a can of dog food, open the door, throw a ball, get stuff out of cracks/under things, etc. Although, most of the time he just wants pets.

My favourite (and it seems universal) is when they do something they know is wrong/forbidden, say destroy something.

You show them the thing asking 'whats this?' 'did you do it?'. They just look to the side pretending that they are not paying attention to you. Like you are not there, until they break and just try to hide :D

Its priceless.

What if, by "object", we mean not a specific instance of an object, but rather the whole category of objects? Do penguins or other animals link a specific vocal sound to "shell" or "children" or "nest"?

Dogs can definitely do that: teach a dog the meaning of 'ball' and some will then apply that to any round object that behaves more or less like the balls they're used to.

I've also had the displeasure of having a polyp on my vocal chords. I lost my voice for a few days during an otherwise "normal" cold … and it never really came back. The ability to talk came back, but the ability to sing didn't, not fully. (I could hear, in my voice, that something wasn't right, but beyond that it was hard to describe. Also, I think that was the first & only time I've ever lost my voice. I … didn't really believe people, when they said they'd "lost their voice". I always just sort of assumed they were whispering because their throat hurt, and talking was painful, and they didn't want pain. No! Turns out that losing your voice is a thing!)

I got referred to an ENT pretty quickly. From there … it got a bit bad-healthcare interesting. The first attempt at getting a look at my vocal chords, as I recall, was with a fiber optic scope up the nose. They numb your nose first, and it wasn't painful, but it was beyond uncomfortable, and apparently I nearly blacked out. (And apparently that's common.)

The second attempt was a camera down the throat, and while that was also not great, it got the image of the throat the ENT wanted, and showed the polyp. I wish I had the image; the doctor was not sure how to transfer that to me, so I never got it.

The bill though, was something else. It was like $4k, just to get a look a my throat. Thankfully insurance cut that back considerably, but I instantly paid my deductible for the year. But I can't fathom what actually cost that, unless the camera they stuck down my throat somehow couldn't just be wiped clean & reused.

The surgery to remove the polyp, AIUI at the time, had a prognosis of like a 50% chance of the polyp just coming back. The ENT prescribed some voice exercises, but they were hard to keep up with. So I ended up just taking it easy for a while, and the problem went away. (Though if the article is to be believed, I'd best never run into a vocal specialist in an elevator if I want to keep on thinking that…; but I'm also not a singer.)

Sorry about your experience, I can relate (commented elsewhere here, though the underlying reason was not a polyp).

Regarding association of whispering with throat pain - it comes from (much more common) experience with viral infections that inflame the throat and chronic laryngitis is nothing like that. In my case, I had a ticklish sensation for couple of days and then nothing at all, no pain, but the voice disappeared.

Also, it turns out that whispering was even harder than vocalizing because - paradoxically - whispering requires more control and effort from vocal cords than vocalizing.

From personal experience: If your voice does not restore in a week or so, go see ENT. There might be multiple reasons for the acute chronic laryngitis and you want to exclude most dangerous ones: malignant tumor on larynx or in upper chest (pressing on one of the two nerves leading up to larynx - they loop down and up). In my case that was not a growth (malignant or benign) anywhere - confirmed by CT scans, but my right vocal fold was paralyzed and doctor could not find the reason other than offering hypothesis that the nerve was damaged by inflammation caused by a viral infection. The mobility and voice restored over the course of a week two months after the onset but it was a scary experience.

Almost definitely unrelated, but I find myself much more fatigued than expected after Zoom/Teams calls. Besides the emotional weirdness of digital only, no eye contact, etc, I can't help but feel that my voice is unexpectedly tired after calls as well.

I have started to think that I'm speaking too loudly to compensate for the lack of physical closeness and I'm "over modulating" my voice to "project" emotion into the call.

Maybe I'm making it up? Anyone having a similar experience?

What you're describing absolutely sounds plausible.

People who use their voice frequently and professionally tend to (over)compensate for perceived or real shortcomings in their environment or their own voice, which in turn can lead to self-consciousness and bad habits over time.

As for the specific setting of video conference calls you're probably right, too. We tend to speak louder than necessary during such calls and to overdo our "performance" because we feel we have to compensate for missing channels such as the full range of gestures, body posture, and facial expressions.

Here are a few general tips for speaking in (semi-)public settings (not just when on Zoom calls):

- Slow down.

- Lower your speaking voice. There are exercises for finding your natural speaking pitch.

- Smile (just a little, no creepy Joker grin ;-) ).

- Focus on your diaphragm rather than your throat for putting emphasis on words or syllables. This admittedly takes some getting used to.

I find Zoom calls and even voice calls on cell phones fatiguing and frustrating. My hypothesis is that it's the latency. We humans are very sensitive to the cadence of a conversation. We wait for lulls to know when to speak.

Calls over the Internet add enough latency that it really fucks up that natural process. So I find I end up being hypervigilent to try to guess ahead when the speaker is about to pause so that if I start talking now it will flow naturally. Otherwise, if I wait for them to pause, they won't hear me start for a while and will end up resuming.

So it's just super draining trying to anticipate the conversational flow and make it go smoothly. I hate it.

If you use your phone for calls, I highly recommend a good headset that can handle full duplex audio. For years I couldn’t figure out why I hated talking to people on my cell phone when I loved talking over land lines. I finally realized that whenever I talked and the other person cut out, it wasn’t them stopping talking, it was the phone not sending audio to my ear. A friend of mine who used to work in telco verified that cell phones will often use half duplex for various reasons, like saving bandwidth , saving battery, even things like noise calcellation and ducking can reduce the quality of a call. He said that often blue tooth headsets will often bypass some of the software involved. My personal experience is that things arent’t as bad as they were 5 years ago, but I’ll still prefer the audio with a decent headset.

Out of curiosity, do you use a headset (or airpods, or anything like that)? I've found that I tend to speak a lot louder when wearing some sort of headphones due to the fact that I can't hear my voice as well, so I tend to do calls using my webcam's microphone and an external speaker so that I can talk normally. This might not be an option for you if you don't live alone, but if you have some degree of privacy while writing, I'd highly recommend trying this out!

No- I definitely agree. I've on occasion made a call with someone who could hear me, and they point out I am not talking like normal.

And to your broader points, I find myself wiped out after any significant Zoom calls. Even a stand up that runs a little long leads to me feeling wiped out

People who liked this article might find Scott Adams vocal issues interesting (for a long time he couldn't speak in a normal tone in conversations but in other contexts like singing or public speaking he could).


Sad, how far off the deep end he went.

very very deep end, all for clicks and publicity, which I think is the worst part

like, people loved Dilbert, why gild the lily?

Jim Davis, is great. He drew Garfield, collected his check, and went home

Adams has been gradually going off the deep end for a long term. See his books from the 90s arguing that mental affirmations will somehow make reality behave like you want it to, for example.

Yea, I loved Dilbert too and bought many of his books. But then he went down the crazy route and I like, nope.

I got to the part where he says "The next day I arrived at the hospital" and I'm just thinking wow, next day appointment for a specialist in a field, that must be nice.

I could only find these two videos of him speaking, and they're from 4 and 6 years ago.



I wonder if it's possible to have effects from disuse, as opposed to overuse?

Since WFH I can go for days without uttering a word. When I'm in a situation where I can talk to someone, my voice seems thin and cracks a lot. If I "warm up" my voice occasionally, singing along to music, etc. this goes away and my "normal" voice returns.

Since vocalization is the outcome of many muscles and tendons working together (as pointed out in the linked piece), I'd expect that like any muscles they could degrade when not used enough ?

could a neurological disorder be affecting his voice?

So, did the author pursue surgical treatment, or do we have to buy the book to find out?

It's also very hard for non-native speakers. We don't know what tone is expected when you're expressing an emotion, and to what level. It's kinda part of an accent, but even with good accent, you have to know culture really well, or have a natural ability to mimic others, to be able to fit in.

now he's too old to rock 'n' roll, but he's too young to die...

Consequently, he said, I had done what many people with my injury do: I had developed strategies for, as he put it, “speaking around the problem” – retraining my recurrent laryngeal nerve (the nerve that, among other things, controls the tension on the vocal cords) to drop the pitch of my voice, slackening my freighted vocal membrane so that the 3 or 4% that was still pliable would vibrate. This reduced the rattle in my voice, but at a cost. It was robbing me of the natural variation in pitch and volume that people use to give colour, animation, expression and personality to their utterances – what linguists call prosody, the melody of everyday speech.


“You’re behaving through a veil of monotone,” he went on. “When you talk, you can’t express emotion properly. You can’t change pitch, can’t get loud, can’t do the normal things that a voice does to express how you feel.”

The first example that jumped to mind when I read this section was Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul).

Anyone know how accurate my armchair diagnosis is?

Jonathan Banks' everyday voice is a lot friendlier and varied than Mike Ehrmantraut's. See for example this random Community interview: https://youtu.be/FzMrU4L1E7s

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