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Christina Najjar, known as 'Tinx' to her TikTok followers, uses a voice that sounds like a QVC host on the night shift, in rhythmic, sing-songy cadences.Handout

In real life, Christina Najjar sounds like a bored secretary, speaking in a near-monotone voice that dips frequently into creaky vocal fry. But online, where the Los Angeles-based 32-year-old is known to her 1.5 million TikTok followers as “Tinx,” she sounds like a different person entirely. There, she speaks like a QVC host on the night shift, in rhythmic, sing-songy cadences.

In downtown Toronto one recent afternoon, she launches into an imitation of her online self.

“Rich Mom Starter Pack,” she says – a reference to her most popular video series.

She lifts an eyebrow. See? “It’s higher pitched. It’s just – it’s a TikTok voice.”

She swears it’s not intentional. “Where does that even come from?” she says, shaking her head.

“It’s bizarre.”

In the late 20th century, there was radio. That was the deep, male voice, spoken in a vague approximation of an upper-crust, British accent (also known as a Mid-Atlantic accent). Then there was the TV voice. That was the booming newscaster, meant to convey confidence and authority. More recently came the YouTube voice – vloggers who spoke with exaggerated movements, overstressing their vowels and consonants, practically shouting “HEY GUYSSSSS” from behind the webcam.

Each voice was tailored for a specific medium, and a specific audience.

Now, a new voice has emerged, this one for TikTok. Across the platform, new vocal tones, cadences and patterns have quickly become standard. They’re voices marked not just by what people are saying, but how.

Take, for example, this 2021 video by @itsmejadeb.

In it, the young woman looks directly at the camera, speaking in a pitch that’s clearly at the upper edge of her natural range. It’s not quite falsetto, but at least half an octave higher than her normal register. Her cadence is steady, measured. As with Najjar, she sounds girlish, breathy – and just slightly bored. Imagine Kim Kardashian giving a speech at the UN.

Online, some have dubbed it TikTalk, or “influencer voice.” It’s a voice that’s ubiquitous across the platform – in videos filmed by users around the world. Whether from Northern India or South Korea or Calgary, all of them speak in the same measured cadences, the same breathy, bored tones.

“Who decided,” asks @itsmejadeb, looking directly into the camera, “that this is how we’re going to talk on TikTok?”

The history of language tells the history of a civilization.

This, according to Sali Tagliamonte at the University of Toronto, a linguistics professor who has devoted her career to studying that history.

And often, she says, changes in language have been driven by new technology.

“The minute you have different registers, and a different medium,” she says, “you get concordant changes in the way people express themselves.”

The skyrocketing popularity of TikTok, which coincided with the initial months of COVID-19 lockdowns, has only continued to grow. Despite concerns over TikTok’s data collection and security, it’s remained wildly popular. Fully one-quarter of Canadians with online access have a TikTok account.

So the language of TikTok, too, has permeated mainstream culture. Whether we realize it or not, it’s changing how all of us speak.

TikTok’s practice of downplaying content the company deems controversial has led to the development of “algospeak.” Popular algospeak, such as “unalive” (for death, or suicide), “SA,” (for sexual assault), or Yt (instead of “White”), has already begun to spill over into common parlance.

What’s sometimes referred to as the singular TikTok voice can in fact be broken down into many different genres, says Nicole Holliday, a linguistics professor at Pomona College in the U.S.

She lists off a few common ones. There’s the FoodTok voice, where narrators speak, sotto voce, in short, staccato sentences. There’s the chatty Tinx “Rich Mom” voice, which relies on the same up-and-down intonation we use to hold the attention of our kids or our pets.

And then there’s influencer voice. That’s the breathy @itsmejadeb voice – breathy, according to Holliday, because research has shown that those are seen as attractive. It’s a voice designed “to sound authoritative and also pleasant,” she says – “basically this kind of paradigm of female aspiration.”

What all of these TikTalk genres have in common, says Holliday, is that they’re all designed to hold a viewer’s attention. She calls them “floor-holding strategies.”

For instance, instead of allowing a natural pause between ideas – and risking the audience scroll to the next video – TikTok creators often fill the space to make clear that they’re not done speaking. They’ll elongate the last syllable of each word, or use words like “um,” or “like.”

“The explanation for every single thing on TikTok,” she says, “is that it’s trying to keep you there.”

Kat Callaghan knows a thing or two about holding an audience’s attention.

It’s what she’s does every day as a morning radio show host in Kitchener, Ont. There, she holds court with her co-host Scott from 5:30 until 9:30 a.m. every weekday morning. Until relatively recently for the 37-year-old mother of two, it’s been a relatively quiet, stable life.

But in 2021, she was hired by ByteDance (the parent company of TikTok) as part of her freelance work as a voiceover artist. They wanted her voice on the TikTok app. And since then, her voice has been transmitted through smartphones around the globe. These days, when Callaghan speaks, it’s with a voice that’s instantly recognizable around the world.

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Callaghan cannot explain the appeal of Jessie, one of her many voices.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Whether or not you’re on TikTok, you’ve heard Callaghan’s voice. She’s known on the app as “Jessie” – that bright, bubbly – and highly synthesized – women’s text-to-speech voice that’s used to narrate what feels like every other video on the platform.

Distinct from the robotic drone of Alexa or Siri – distinct from any real, live, human voice, she’s high-pitched, buoyant and very, very animated. It’s a voice designed to grab, and hold, an audience’s attention. Each word begins with a pop, followed by a downward inflection. If you were to imagine her voice as text, EVery! WOrd! WOuld! LOok! LIke! THis!

The peppy “Jessie,” of course, is just one of Callaghan’s many voices. In real life, her voice is flatter, and smoother than her TikTok counterpart. And in her commercial work, she’s often the ‘millennial mom’ – a friendly, conversational voice that reflects the purchasing power of her real-life demographic.

Even she can’t quite explain the appeal of Jessie. Some TikTok creators use her voice ironically – juxtaposing the bright, peppy voice with, say, early pandemic videos of the dreariness of lockdowns. It’s also paired often with otherwise serious videos – softening the blow, say, on discussions around suicide, or mental health.

Sitting in her Kitchener studio, she opens the TikTok app, and toggles between the dozens of text-to-speech voice options. Some of the options betray deeply entrenched gendered assumptions: “author,” “professor,” and “serious,” for instance, are all male.

But the one that’s hands-down the most popular is Jessie – the female, youthful-sounding, unquestionably happy voice of Callaghan. And she believes that’s significant.

Instead of the singular broadcast voice of the past century – the voice of the older white man – TikTok is where the voices of young, female, LGBTQ and often racialized groups are flourishing. It’s where vocal fry (drawing out the ends of words with creaky, breathy sounds) is embraced – celebrated, even. Where voices of all kinds can take on new meanings.

The audience likely has something to do with it: TikTok’s origin as a dance app popular with younger women means that it still skews female. Today, more than 57 per cent of its users are female. In the U.S., the majority of TikTok users are younger (under the age of 30), and racialized.

Callaghan contrasts it with other online platforms, where female robot voices are used as assistants – “there to assist you, or guide you.” On TikTok, the female voices are there to be heard.

Holliday is optimistic about this. She’s hopeful that these are signs that collectively, we’re moving away from the white, male, upper-class voice that’s dominated culture for decades. That’s a voice, she says, that manages to “exclude almost everyone.”

“My hope,” she said, “is that there will soon be many ways to sound credible, authoritative and professional.”

Back in Toronto, Najjar – Tinx – who is there for a promotional event with SkipTheDishes, takes stock of her many online voices.

There’s her Instagram voice: “kind of flat, monotone” Her podcast voice: “more animated.” Her writing voice – her book, The Shift, which came out last month, is self-help of sorts for young women. There’s even her Snapchat “voice” – which is really just text captions, since most users use the app, she says, with the sound turned off.

In the future, she hopes there might be room for her in traditional media – film, or maybe TV. She hopes her two-million-plus followers on social media will keep growing with her, through new mediums and platforms. That, no matter how she sounds, they’ll still recognize – and relate to – her voice.

“It’s like The Truman Show. But it’s the Tinx show.”

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