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24 Aug

Why does everyone on TikTok talk like that?

On TikTok, influencers speak in enthusiastic, lilting tones – but why?

Hey guys, I just got an order in from Sephora – here’s all the things that I got. Prepare with me for a ship day in Miami. Come and spend the day with me – taking off with coffee. Should you’ve spent any time in any respect on the web, it’s likely you read these phrases in the identical lilting, singsong cadence. It’s a phenomenon which has been dubbed “influencer voice” or “TikTok voice”.

To the untrained ear, it could actually be hard to pinpoint what exactly constitutes TikTok voice. In line with Tony Thorne, a linguist and lexicographer specialising in slang and cultural history, “it’s not one easy thing, but a mix of assorted tones”. He adds that TikTok voice is usually “high-pitched, breathless, youthful, with over-emphasised keywords and sequences, barely odd speeded-up and slowed-down sequences, and coy intonation and body language.” Dr Christian Ilbury, a sociolinguist on the University of Edinburgh, adds that uptalk – where people end their sentences with a better pitch as in the event that they’re asking an issue – is one other common characteristic of TikTok voice.

Dr Ilbury adds that this manner of speaking is just not just characterised by a creator’s voice, but additionally the way in which they structure sentences. “What I feel they’re doing is using a reasonably formulaic discourse routine wherein they draw the audience’s attention in,” Dr Ilbury says, adding that this is especially relevant on TikTok where videos are so short. Essentially, creators will normally keep on with this tried-and-tested pattern: they’ll welcome the audience (“hi guys!”) and set the scene (“I just did an enormous Zara haul…”) before going into the actual meat of the video (“…and here’s all the things that I got”). 

“On TikTok, it’s such a limited economy of attention you’re mainly vying for that spotlight and to be recognised,” Dr Ilbury continues. “Videos are monetised. How do you make cash? By engagement. How do you retain people engaged? You employ linguistic styles which are engaging.” A few studies have shown, for instance, that uptalk successfully grabs our attention, as they implicitly invite the listener to verify that they’re listening (in the identical way that somebody might add “right?” to the top of a sentence). Removed from making the speaker sound unconfident and deferential, the subtext behind uptalk is: are you listening to me? “To understand how relevant engagement is, imagine them literally reeling the identical stories off in a secular style or how we’d speak to our family,” Dr Ilbury adds. “We’d scroll on.”

As is the case with almost anything influencers do, certainly one of the criticisms levelled at the way in which people speak on TikTok is that it’s annoying, fake, and ‘inauthentic’. But this criticism fundamentally misunderstands the way in which speech works. “We now have other ways of speaking depending on the audience, topic, and purpose. A few of those styles grow to be related to particular roles and jobs – here, it’s influencers,” Dr Ilbury explains. It’s true: most of us can imagine a train driver placidly announcing the following stop or a GP cooing “I’m sorry to listen to that”.

Besides, the phenomenon of adopting an affected, theatrical form of speaking for entertainment purposes isn’t anything recent. Take the half-American, half-British ‘transatlantic accent’ which was taught to and spoken by actors, radio presenters, and newsreaders within the US in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The accent largely grew in popularity since it supposedly made people sound more ‘refined’ and educated, but its dynamic, lilting timbre also kept audiences hanging off the speaker’s every word – not dissimilar to the way in which wherein TikTokers talk.

Interestingly, while 100 years ago some Americans were putting on British accents, the other appears to be true on the web today, with some Brits occasionally lapsing into an American twang. Take this video of Tamsin Wong: she speaks in a quintessential British accent 90 per cent of the time, however the ‘t’ sounds in words like “getting” and “state” sound more like ‘d’ sounds – characteristic of the usual American accent.

It’s something Thorne has noticed too. “More recently, influencers, Gen Z and TikTokers have used an accent that veers unpredictably between US and UK or combines elements of each, perhaps looking only for novelty and originality but additionally a cosmopolitan effect that isn’t too localised,” he says. “My very own 16-year-old daughter – who spends hours on TikTok – has picked up a world English accent which is as American as English, but wherein she will be able to code-switch, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately”. This arguably speaks to the way in which wherein American culture has come to dominate web culture, with linchpins just like the Kardashians largely acting as ‘blueprints’ for other creators and influencers world wide to follow.

@itsmejadeb This video took 3 tries and now I’m hooked on talking like this #tiktokvoice ♬ original sound – Jade

A newer and obvious predecessor to TikTok voice is ‘YouTube voice’ – the loud, barely nasal, over-exaggerated manner of speaking utilized by a big selection of creators, from vlogger Hank Green to ‘junklord’ pioneer MrBeast to beauty and lifestyle influencer Zoella. But as social media has evolved and the influencer industry’s price has snowballed into the billions, audiences have fallen out of affection with the artifice of all of it and are more cynical than ever concerning the variety of grifters seeking to make a fast buck by shilling snake oil. The overenthusiasm and brashness of YouTube voice doesn’t wash a lot with today’s audience – hence TikTok voice’s barely more subtle approach. As Thorne puts it, TikTok voice is “designed to return across as intimate and conversational and informal and interesting, but covertly claiming authority and expertise and sincerity and looking for to impress and persuade at the identical time.”

Ultimately, we shouldn’t be too surprised that everybody sounds the identical on TikTok, given conformity is rewarded greater than difference on social media; just have a look at the legions of influencers with Instagram face. TikTok voice is an equivalent phenomenon; a pertinent example of how mimicry spreads like wildfire on the web. “One particular attribute of TikTok is its replicability and the way in which its performances are ‘catching’ and go viral,” Thorne explains. “This goes for the language, too, so linguistic quirks are quickly imitated – consciously or unconsciously – and appear to grow to be suddenly universal. Language works like this naturally, but not often so quickly […] but because TikTok is ubiquitous and global, its tics and traits and quirks spread very rapidly. Thus, an intonation favoured by a couple of US influencers may be taken up almost immediately across the Anglosphere and beyond.”

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