About ten years ago, when I was still in high school and my sister had never even heard of a post-uvulal fricative, my family and I were spending the morning sitting around the breakfast table. It must have been a Saturday since nobody had time to eat together in the mornings during the weekdays. Plus the comics were four-paneled black and whites. "Beetle Bailey" had decided to run a joke that mentioned the supposedly truthful fact that women's voices tended to get higher as they grew older. Coincidently, men would start to lose hearing in the upper register as they grew older. It was one of those cartoons where the joke wrote itself because the scientific facts it sited were ostensably true. Comic writers know that jokes don't work if the facts on which they are based are false.
My mother was highly amused by this conjunction of facts. She didn't laugh out loud (nobody has done that with the genially unrealistic depiction of army life in "Beetle Bailey" for years) but she did point out the strip to the rest of us at the table. "'Beetle Bailey,' which is where I get most of my scientific knowledge you understand, is very interesting today."
I thought of that conversation today while chatting with my colleagues at MIU (Mongolia International University.) Christina (notherrealname), an American teacher in her early fifties, talked about how her voice had deepened as she had become older. She was talking to the director of the English Education department, a quiet, round-faced Korean man in his mid-thirties not named Tae Hee. "All women's voices become lower as they age," Christina said authoritatively.
"Really?" I asked, overhearing the conversation, "Are you sure? I thought that women's voices went higher as they aged."
"Where did you hear that?" Christina asked.
I didn't really want to reveal the source.
"Well," Christina said, "The only way we can really settle this is if we go online." A few googlings later Christina was vindicated. "Yup, according to this published study women's voices become lower as they age. It doesn't say how men's voices change though."
"Let's hope they stay the same," Tae Hee said, "I hate my voice. It's much too low. It would be embarrassing if my voice lowered any more."
My eyebrows rose a bit at this statement. "Oh, but I like your voice!" Christina said, similarly surprised. Indeed Tae Hee had a very pleasant baritone voice. It was masculine but not inordinately low by any stretch of the imagination. I could not see why he would despise it.
"Eh..." Tae Hee said, "I've always hated it."
"Oh well that's just nonsense," Christina said. "Yeah," I added. The Korean women in the office remained tactfully silent... or perhaps they were just busy.
This conversation was intriguing to me. Westerners, in general, tend to find the Korean language dysphonious.... too full of high whining tones. These tones found in Korean are known as "vowel harmony" by philologists... but to an Anglophonic ear they tend to sound uncomfortably close to the whinging of cranky toddlers. Now I was learning that generally the tones that Westerners- particularly women- tend to find attractive in everyday speech were considered unnattractive to Koreans. "My voice is too low," said Tae Hee... and the tactful silence of the Korean staff seemed to confirm this.
Christina, in her customarily brusque manner, ignored all this and set out to restore Tae Hee's self-esteem. "Oh come now!" she said, "There is nothing wrong with your voice!" Christina turned back to her computer and there was a five minute lull in the conversation. Everybody had returned to his or her work when Christina broke the silence again with a: "Oh, well, isn't THIS interesting?!"
"What is?" I asked, not wanting her to be left in a void of uninterested silence.
"According to this study," Christina said, "Men with lower voices tend to have greater virility and produce more children! Women also tend to be more attracted to men with lower voices and tend to pay more attention around a man who speaks with deeper tones."
Tae Hee said nothing to this, poor fellow. It is embarrassing to have your masculine prospects dissected within earshot of the office staff.
"Yes, well," I said, "Where was that study produced?"
"Hmm.... 'Royal Academy of...' the UK."
"A-ha!" I said, "So the study subjects were all British. The study isn't international. Maybe the results don't extend to Korea."
"That's true," said Tae Hee. He was being a good sport.
"Hmmmm..." Christina said. There was another lull for about a minute.
"Have I told you about the ghost in my apartment?" I asked.