Vocal Fry Isn't Just for College Girls

It turns out vocal fry, what the Internet is reporting as a new linguistic trend "creeping" into women's speech isn't much of a trend at all.

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It turns out vocal fry, what the Internet is reporting as a new linguistic trend "creeping" into women's speech isn't much of a trend at all. A writeup of the research describes the speech pattern as a language craze among our nation's female youth. "Now, a new study of young women in New York state shows that the same guttural vibration--once considered a speech disorder--has become a language fad," writes Science's Marissa Fessenden. That makes it seem like this low tone, which sounds like this, by the way, is just showing up now. But, as Language Log's Mark Liberman, who is a professor of linguistics at The University of Pennsylvania, points out this isn't a new anything. "These 'low creaky vibrations' have been common since forever," he writes. "And moderate use, especially at the ends of phrases, has never been considered a speech disorder."

It turns out that vocal fry isn't a phenomenon, but something that all speakers employ from time to time. The study doesn't claim to quantify the change of creekage over time, or even look at how vocal patterns differ between genders. The research only looked at the way 32 college-aged women spoke, concluding that it occurs often in their patterns. Something researchers already knew, explain the authors in a quote to Fessenden.

The study is the first to quantify the prevalence of vocal fry in normal speech, although other researchers have noted the pattern. The group is also the first to verify that American women are much more likely to exhibit the behavior than men, as its yet-unpublished data show that male college-age students don't use the creaky voice. The team's next steps will attempt to find out when this habit started--and if it is indeed a budding trend.

In fact, everyone creeks, continues Liberman. "I'd be very surprised to learn that there are any speech communities where vocal fry is not sometimes found in normal, non-pathological speech patterns." So when the Science article mentions that it does not hear creak on NPR, that's probably not true.

The tone, however, might be changing in its status. Earlier research had generally associated the deep tone with masculinity and hard core gang status when employed by women, according to linguists Robert Podesva and Sinae Lee. But their look at 32 subjects found that those rules no longer applied, they write:

The high incidence of creaky voice among white women suggests that the indexical potential of creaky voice has expanded beyond its associations  with masculinity.  Moreover, while female speakers exhibit a tendency to phonate in nonmodal voice, the particular nonmodal voice qualities used depend on ethnicity, with white females preferring creaky voice and African American females, falsetto.  In sum, even though voice quality indexes gender, it does so in non-iconic and culturally specific ways.  

Image by Anetlanda via Shutterstock

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.