In 2015, The Atlantic writer Julie Beck talked to Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University who studied electronically mediated communication, about the reason behind why all successful YouTubers sound the same in their videos. Not because of their accents or the sound of their voices but because of the way they were talking.
In response, Baron listed and described the linguistic components of YouTube voice—and the term was born. But what did she mean by that? How has the attention-grabbing trick evolved since then?
If you’re partial to watching YouTube vlogs (not the silent type), you’ve probably noticed that the most popular way to introduce oneself on the platform has been a single phrase “Hey guys!” usually followed by “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” In fact, the company went as far as to track the data over the past decade. “What’s up?” and “good morning” come in second and third, but “hey guys” has consistently remained in the top spot.
But YouTube voice is about more than just having the right go-to opening sentence. According to Baron, the linguistic components of YouTube voice consist of: overstressed vowels, sneaky extra vowels between consonants, long vowels as well as long consonants, and aspiration. Let’s have a closer look at each of these, shall we?
Nowadays, people tend to not pronounce certain vowels—they’re un-emphasised and neutral, and just sort of hang loosely in the middle of the mouth, making an ‘euh’ sound, regardless of which vowel it actually is. This is called the schwa. When you make the effort to actually pronounce a vowel that is usually a schwa, you’re actually trying to emphasise the word you’re saying.
For example, “If I say the word ‘exactly’, you don’t really know what that first vowel is. ‘Euh,’” Baron told The Atlantic. “If I say ‘eh-xactly’, you have the sound ‘eh’, like in the word ‘bet’.”
YouTubers are also prone to adding a little vowel between consonants to elongate a word. By adding an extra syllable to the word, it emphasises the word in turn. “There’s a name for this: epenthetic vowel,” Baron precised.
Stretching out vowels is another common way of emphasising words—sometimes it’s obvious, and clearly done on purpose. Other times, like in many of these YouTube vlogs, the vowels are just sliiightly longer than normal. And the same can be done to consonants, especially those at the beginning of words.
An aspiration can be identified when you say a precise word while holding a finger in front of your lips. If you feel a breath of air on your finger while saying the word, chances are it’s what is called an aspiration. There’s normally one on the letter ‘k’, even if you say it normally, but if you huff and puff a little more, that makes the word stand out. You can also hear this with ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds.
Popular YouTubers aren’t the only (nor first) ones to adopt the voice—people employ these devices in speech all the time. But they generally do it to grab the listener’s attention, and when you’re just talking to a camera without much action, it obviously takes a little more to get, and maintain, that attention. On the platform, top content creators know how to engage an audience.
There are other factors at play here, too. YouTubers’ monologues often speed up and slow down in order to get your attention. Elongating certain words helps change up the pace. People also tend to move their heads and hands a lot in these videos, raise their eyebrows, and open their mouths wider than necessary. Anything to captivate their audience.
If you’re still unsure of what YouTube voice entails, check any video posted on the platform by Hank Green.
Ever since TikTok rose to fame around 2020, YouTube voice has proliferated there as well. “Most instances were essentially 60-second versions of YouTube videos, dudes pointing to an image or a graph while explaining whatever factoids went alongside it, or giving scripted hot takes on some depressing political event. Popular users like @onlyjayus iterated on the voice by adding visual eye-grabbers like walking into the frame, holding their camera up to a bathroom mirror, then giving a clearly rehearsed spiel,” explains Rebecca Jennings in Vox.
In a way, because of TikTok’s shorter video format, YouTube voice has already shifted into TikTok voice—a version more sped-up and less dramatic. Although YouTube voice aims to keep things casual, on top of making it more engaging to listen to, TikTok voice manages to do so on a whole new level. This is because, unlike top YouTube creators, most users on TikTok aren’t trying to sound like content creators. They’re just doing it unknowingly, and slightly less dramatically.
TikTok voice is nothing less than YouTube voice’s rightful successor. Just like gen Zers took Y2K fashion and reinvented it their own way, they’re now bending the rules of linguistic tricks to redefine which are acceptable or not. And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy with YouTube voice disappearing for good.
Gambian-Canadian-American multidisciplinary artist and content creator Khadija Mbowe has a whole lot to say, and it’s time to listen up! To Mbowe, challenging gender norms and inequality in 2021 means “holding myself accountable,” which to us, couldn’t ring truer. For International Women’s Day 2021, Screen Shot has partnered with three inspiring changemakers who, through their community, platform, and online presence, have challenged gender inequality each in their own way.
Mbowe is a dynamic singer, entertainer, writer and all-round creative with a voice that speaks more truth than most. Their content, which they regularly share on most social media platforms, is used to not only entertain but to educate. By starring in their own projects on a weekly basis Mbowe’s growing YouTube channel now has over 2.5 million views, and they are only getting started with videos that tackle topics like emotional intelligence, racism, feminism, queer-baiting, colourism, diversity and so, so much more.
Speaking to Screen Shot, Mbowe shared, “I like to give my audience as much grace as possible because we all come to realisations of systemic oppression at different times. Something I really want people to take away from my videos though, is that it’s never too late to learn, grow, and change. I believe that it is so important to get uncomfortable with yourself and evaluate the ways you benefit from gender inequality, what racial biases you might have, all of it. Recognition is the first step towards learning and growing.”
When Screen Shot asked them about the message they wanted to share with the world on IWD, they said: “You’re doing a great job, girl, that’s what I wanna say, you’re doing a great job,” and their pure love and purpose is as contagious as it gets. Mbowe, who in their own words is “a very curious person,” says that they “like to investigate a lot, so I try to learn as much as I can about how a construct like gender has created so much division in the world and so much inequality.” Which is remarkably an ongoing and tragic repercussion of history within our society still to this day, and ultimately something that every single one of us needs to help change.
In a piece Mbowe wrote for Opera Canada that spoke of the power of using social media to fight opera inequality specifically, which is a side of their creative passion, they wrote “As a black singer, I cannot turn off my skin. I cannot mute my gender identity. I am unable to delete my queerness, and I should not have to in order to feel like I have a chance at succeeding in this industry. Like every social revolution before this, young people are leading the charge.”
Particular messages that they would like to share with women on not only IWD, but always, is that “It’s okay to question what these constructs even mean, it’s okay to change your mind and try and understand who you are fundamentally” and that “If you want to make a better world, you need only look to the past to find the answers.”
Social media has the power to wield enormous change, and thanks to a growing number of activists finding their community, change is starting to be noticed. Change as an idea in itself however, according to Mbowe, can be deconstructed further: “I think we should always pay attention to this idea of ‘change’ when it comes to these power structures and really focus on the core values of these systems of oppression as well as their names.”
In particular, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, “because at its core, those systems have values based on individualism, control, power, a one up, one down paradigm and those are the things we should be paying attention to, to enact real change. What does our world look like with collaboration, engagement, and equity as the core values of new systems?” Evidently, there is still a lot (more than most are willing to see) to be done, but now is the time to get involved.