Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

25 August 2010

Women's voices call the shots in recorded announcements

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, controlling unrest is very different to the ‘With a loud voice command’ of the 1714 Riot Act:

Suddenly, from out of the Synthetic Music Box a Voice began to speak. The Voice of Reason, the Voice of Good Feeling. The sound-track roll was unwinding itself in Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech Number Two (Medium Strength). Straight from the depths of a non-existent heart, “My friends, my friends!” said the Voice so pathetically, with a note of such infinitely tender reproach that, behind their gas masks, even the policemen’s eyes were momentarily dimmed with tears, “what is the meaning of this? Why aren’t you all being happy and good together? Happy and good,” the Voice repeated. “At peace, at peace.”

The Voice is a sexless ‘it’, but in the 1930s when Brave New World was published, nearly all voices ordering or informing adults were those of men. As described in Anne Karpf’s book The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent, women’s voices were judged to be too ‘shrill’ and lacking in gravitas for public announcement.

By the 1970s, however, women announcers had become common in supermarkets and department stores. Actress Stephanie Gathercole provided the efficient-sounding lift voice for the opening credits of the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?:

Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food. Going up. First floor telephones, gents’ ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes. Going up. Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas.

Lift voices informing you of what's on each floor are one of those features which no longer seem to exist in department stores, although one survives at the British Library.

Going by recordings on the UK SoundMap, women’s voices are now the preferred option for recorded announcements. They outnumber male voices 5 to 1 in settings as diverse as buses, train stations and supermarkets. It’s a significant change in the public sound environment compared to just a few decades ago.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm


Me and a friend were discussing something similar on a tube last week. It seems that not only are the announcements made mainly by females but the type of female voice seems to have changed over the time as well.

On the older tube networks such as the Central line the female is soft, gentle, proper, old school and not as concise as the sharp edged, very direct, no messing about voice of the announcer on the DLR network...both female very different ways.

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