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

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