The Linguistic Phenomenon Du Jour: Vocal Fry

By Veronique Greenwood | December 13, 2011 1:26 pm

What’s the News: Rarely has a humble little sound aroused such interest as in the last few days, as a paper about a phenomenon called vocal fry, a creak in someone’s voice as they speak, has been propelled to web prominence. Though many outlets got some basic facts wrong—the new study doesn’t actually show that fry has become more common among young women, just that it was common in the small group surveyed—all recognized the opportunity to launch into something we wish we knew more about: why we make funny sounds when we talk.

How the Heck:

    • Vocal fry is a low, rumbling creak that, in English speakers, seems to appear mostly at the ends of sentences and has been captured in voice recordings going back to the early part of last century. Below is a clip (start watching at 34 seconds) with Mae West showing vocal fry on the “me” in “Why don’t you come up sometime, see me,” identified by the linguistics wonks at Language Log. Basically, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from falsetto.

  • The researchers at Long Island University, Brookville, have been wondering how widespread the vocal fry is (you may have noticed it, for instance, in the work of pop stars like Britney Spears), and whether it conveys any particular meaning when used in social interactions.
  • They had 34 female college students pronounce a series of vowels for them and read a text, and their analysis found that within this small sample, approximately two-thirds used vocal fry, usually at the end of sentences. They conclude that vocal fries might be pretty common, at least in some populations.

 

What’s the Context:

  • As a piece of research, this paper more of an amuse-bouche than an entree. If we go through this same process with hundreds or thousands of people across the country, we might start to get a picture of how common vocal fry is and what role it’s playing among the people who use it.
  • And that’s the question that has gotten so many people curious in the past couple days. If we do use vocal fry frequently (or if just certain groups do), why is that, and what are we saying with it? One commenter on the Language Log post on this topic notes that he’s heard interviewers on NPR use vocal fry, apparently to suggest intimacy with the interviewee. That little creak, perhaps, is inviting them to speak freely.
  • In some ways, this work is a reminder that conversational English, though we don’t think about it much, does have aspects of a tonal language. Mandarin Chinese has four different tones, each of which encodes explicit meaning, so one syllable, depending on the tone used, can have four very different meanings. In English, we instead use similar kinds of tones to give extra heft or nuance to our meaning, to imply what we aren’t necessarily able to convey in words. Just think of all the ways you can say, “Oh, really?” and how tone changes the meaning. Incredulous, sarcastic, sincere…not to mention that question mark, which is, of course, denoted by a rising pitch.

The Future Holds: Large studies looking at people of different ages and backgrounds’ usage of vocal fry, both in lab exercises and in regular, conversational speech, will be required to pick apart of the answers to these questions. In the meantime, phoneticists, rejoice: you’ve now got an army of curious folks who will be listening for vocal fry wherever they go.

Reference: Lesley Wolk, Nassima B. Abdelli-Beruh, and Dianne Slavin, “Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers“, Journal of Voice, in press.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • usul

    Oh, Really?

  • Smarti

    This article implies that this Linguistic Phenomenon is prevalent amongst females and doesn’t even mention it amongst men. But vocal fry is much used in singing where a singer would “fry” notes up to two octaves below their modal registers as in gospel, country and heavy metal. This is not a new phenomenon: remember Ted Baxter in the Mary Tyler Moore show???

  • Michelle

    It may be a way that people think their voice is sexier. There are things that I hear people do with their voices that I am unable to reproduce. I remember as a child living in France that women pitched their voices a bit higher than their natural range. This was something I was distinctly aware of, maybe because my Belgian mother didn’t. I can remember thinking that this was somehow more feminine and trying to do it. I’ve never done this while speaking English…but I was amazed, some 50 years later, to note when listening to a recent recording that my voice when speaking French is pitched somewhat higher than in English. So consciously or subconsciously, people do things to fit into what they think is a sexier, or more ethnic (or whatever) way of speaking.

  • sliders_alpha

    I think it’s just the way french is spoken (i’m french)
    when you hear tv show, women or men, french voices always sound higher than english ones.

    for you it’s talking higher than your natural pitch,
    for me, when I speak english, it’s talking lower than my natural pitch.

  • Ron

    God, I am so relieved to read this. I thought it was just something going on with me, some layer of anti-female rising to the surface. I listen almost exclusively to NPR and increasingly there are women on there with that ‘ratcheting’ sound on the end of sentences. It annoys me so much that I leap for the remote to mute them. To my ear it sounds like some kind of narcissistic smugness, though I may have to face that as being just my reaction to the phenomenon. I’d be interested in whether any other commenters have a problem with this verbal behaviour.

  • RJ

    I’ll probably find myself listening for this in the future but this is way too subtle for me to think the mass population is knowingly using this for a specific purpose. I’m far from any sort of grammar/inflection Nazi but I cringe every time I hear people using the “Valley Girl” -everything is a question- speak or randomly insert an “H” into words like s(h)treet.

  • MW

    @Ron:

    I, too, find unneccesary vocal inflections to be maddening; it detracts from the importance of the message the speaker is attemping to convey. When I was a young woman in college, the whole inane Valley Girl thing was (thankfully!) winding down but what remained was the propensity for my female peers to use a nasally, whiny, sing-song tone on every word that came out of their mouth. It drove me nuts to the point that I simply avoiding conversing with any women under the age of 50.

    Now, the whiny voice has been replaced with this grating, “throat full of hardening plaster” inflection. The end of every sentance has to be drawn out for several seconds, as if to give the listener enough time to come up with her own equally empty-headed comment. I’ve found that this manner of speaking is normally followed by one of two actions by the speaker; she’ll either A) sit there slack-jawed with a vacant expression, or B) roll her eyes dissmissively.

    Ladies, you do yourselves no favor following this hip, trendy, so now, “just us girls having fun” habit. It’s not cute. It’s not sexy. It’s not anything except useless and annoying. As a business person who makes hiring decisions, I absolutely will not consider an applicant who embraces this nonesense. Being able to communicate clearly is at the base for all human interaction.

    Girls, grow up. If you want to be taken seriously, strive to speak clearly and confidently. Modulate and use inflections appropriately. Leave the fluffy stuff in the powder room; it’s neither necessary nor admired in the real world.

    Stepping off the soapbox now. Have a wonderful day.

  • http://judyrodman.com Judy Rodman

    Habitual vocal fry in the speaking voice is indeed has the potential to cause vocal damage. As a vocal coach, correcting this speaking habit is one of the fastest ways I bring relief to people with vocal fatigue and strain. You can, if you do it without excessive breath pressure, sing with vocal fry with no problem… metal singers do it a lot and sometimes singers use the technique to get down to their lowest notes. But even they can get into trouble with excessive pressure.

    Again… it’s the HABITUAL dropping of the speaking voice into vocal fry that is the problem. I know it from my own and others’ vocal experiences. It matters.

  • Patrick

    Ron, you are not overreacting. It’s appalling, offensive, and condescending. It’s meant to give the impression of unquestionable intelligence and superiority. Such an affect to that end is, indeed, nothing but narcissicism in spoken word.

    Ladies, I adjure you to drop the fry as though it were a disease. A man will think you lack confidence if you have to put on such vocal effects to impress. The only people impressed are those equally or even more insecure. Be yourself and you’ll be far more appealing than the most desirable woman with the fry.

  • Richard

    What is a phoneticist? Is it different from phonetician?

  • Little A

    I think the Mae West clip demonstrates that this is not something new. And it also strikes me as interesting that discussion of this study seems to have morphed, here and elsewhere, into another way to criticize women. MW and Ron might want to take a look at the cited Language Log posting. And also, just maybe, they quit finding fake reasons to justify their hatred of women. Boys, grow up. If you want to be taken seriously, strive to respect women and try not to manufacture a reason for your irrational dislike of females and female voices. Leave the douchey stuff for the locker room; it’s neither necessary nor admired in the real world.

    /rant. Have a wonderful day.

  • Kelly K

    They need to look into why young women (especially) feel it’s “sexy” to say their “S”s at the beginning of words as “Sh” now. (Example, saying the word “street” as “shtreet” or “strength” as “shtrength”) It’s annoying as…

  • Jumblepudding

    See Captain Katherine Janeway of the Starship Voyager. If there was ever something that made me question her as a captain, it was the vocal fry.

  • Hayley

    @ Patrick:
    “Be yourself and you’ll be far more appealing than the most desirable woman with the fry.”

    Oh, so as a woman, I should take care to pitch my voice so that I am “appealing”? Thanks for the advice, friend. I’ll be sure to comply.
    Frankly, I too find vocal fry a little irritating, but that has nothing to do with how “appealing” it makes people sound. And I’d like to stress the word “people” there – vocal fry isn’t a strictly female phenomenon!

  • alex fairchild

    Another vocal affectation I’ve noticed with american girls : exaggerated sibilance. Think of a very pretty, top-of-the-hierarchy high school girl, saying “you can’t be serious”, with a very high pitched overtone on both “S”s, almost like a whistle near the top of the audible range. In my experience this one signifies the speaker is ‘very pretty’, or is attempting to convey that they are. The only example that’s coming to me right now is the Margaret Chang character in Rushmore… sorry!

    The final syllable vocal fry phenomenom I first noticed in the early nineties in California, I’ve always thought of it as a characteristic of Valley speak. And I DID notice it on NPR tonight, on a Marketplace segment… I must admit I found it rather unprofessional! But I’m not sure why I feel that way, it’s just a subcultural dialect; nothing inherently wrong with it as far as I’m concerned.

  • weirdo

    Hmmm Patrick…your emotional defensiveness suggests it is not the speaker, but you, who is insecure. I’ve never heard of this thing until now but geez, why sound so threatened?

    “It’s appalling, offensive, and condescending. It’s meant to give the impression of unquestionable intelligence and superiority. ….
    Ladies, I adjure you to drop the fry as though it were a disease. A man will think you lack confidence if you have to put on such vocal effects to impress. The only people impressed are those equally or even more insecure. Be yourself and you’ll be far more appealing than the most desirable woman with the fry.”

  • speechnerd

    Jumblepudding, its spelled Kathryn, but I agree. Kathryn Janeway of Voyager is a perfect example of vocal fry.

  • DaDoc540

    Iggy Pop uses the vocal fry register in his music, such as in his song,”I’m Bored”.

  • MW

    @Little A

    I am a woman.

  • Trev

    I slip into vocal fry when I’m tired, now that I think about it. But I don’t do it consciously…so please don’t judge us all because someone uses it as an affectation…

  • Lisa Davidson

    I can’t imagine how anyone could talk that way on purpose. I mean, what muscles would you use? It sounds like it would hurt, anyway.

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