Creaky Voice: Yet Another Example of Young Women's Linguistic Ingenuity

If you want to see where the language is going, you find a young, urban woman.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

When I taught linguistics to undergraduates, I would start each semester off by asking students what sort of assumptions they would they make about a speaker who said, "I ain't got no money." The responses were always similar—"ignorant," "uneducated," "stupid." If I pressed, one brave student would eventually come forward and say "African American."

After writing up the list of associations on the board, I'd point out that for nearly a thousand years, double negation was standard in English. "I ne saugh nawiht" in Middle English; "I don't see anything" in Modern English. Today, one can find it in French, which negates verbs by affixing the particles ne and pas to either side of the verb, as well as in Afrikaans, Greek, and a number of Slavic languages. The point: There is nothing inherently "ignorant" or "stupid" about double negation; judgments about speech are judgments about the speakers themselves.

This lesson came to mind as I read through the recent flare-up over "vocal fry," a linguistic trend among young, upwardly mobile women. Technically called "creaky voice," vocal fry is produced by compressing the vocal chords, which reduces the airflow through the larynx and the frequency of vibrations, causing speech to sound rattled or "creaky." Zooey Deschanel and Kim Kardashian slip in and out of this register, as does Britney Spears, but it has been observed in college-aged women across the country. Not surprisingly, it has sparked the ire of stodgy old white dudes—most recently NPR's Bob Garfield, who called the phenomenon "vulgar," "annoying," and "repulsive" on Slate's language podcast, Lexicon Valley.

Zooey Deschanel speaks with vocal fry in a 2011 interview

It's no surprise that Garfield, a member of the silver-haired commentariat, thinks vocal fry is an abomination. As Slate's Amanda Hess points out, in his mind its spread signals the "downfall of his own mode of communication" and suggests that "young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard." But this dynamic is by no means new. In large part, the story of language is one of the dominant political group trying to fix the linguistic code in place, and those below them pushing and pulling it loose. Unlike in economics, however, the 99 percent always wins.

Women have long tended to be the linguistic innovators. The standard practice for linguists conducting research on a new language is to find a "NORM"—a non-mobile, older, rural male. NORMs are the most conservative linguistically, and typically serve as a model for where the language has been. If you want to see where the language is going, on the other hand, you find a young, urban woman. We have women to thank for "up-talk"—the rising intonation at the end of a sentence that has spread into mainstream speech—the discourse marker "like," and now, vocal fry. It is not entirely understood why women tend to be ahead of the curve; it may be because they are less constrained by the limitations of "polite" speech, or because they form more of the social bonds that allow a linguistic trait to spread. Some have also suggested that because women tend to be the primary caretakers during infancy, they pass along linguistic traits to their children during the language-acquisition phase.

Whatever the reason, female linguistic innovation triggers a strange but reliable reaction. At the very hint of linguistic unorthodoxy, NORMs like Garfield go into an existential panic. Feeling the social hierarchy rumble beneath them, they express genteel disapproval, which quickly gives way to forceful denunciations—"vulgar," "annoying," "repulsive"—cries about the end of Western civilization, and finally, what's-the-world-come-to resignation. As with my students, if you press them on what exactly sounds "wrong," they come up with different ways of saying the same thing. Finally, they concede: "It just sounds wrong." Inherently there is of course nothing unsophisticated about vocal fry, up-talk, or using "like." Had NORMs been the ones to pioneer these tics, we'd be praising them as enriching expansions of the language. We'd be reading The, Like, New Yorker. All this is to say that normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes.

So raise a glass to teenage girls for their linguistic innovation. It expands our expressive vocabulary, giving us new words and modes of expression. Speakers may nostalgically look to a previous golden era of English, but the truth is that Shakespeare's English is an abomination of Chaucer's English, which is an abomination of Beowolf's. Language is inherently unstable. It's in a constant state of flux, made and remade—stretched, altered, broken down and rearranged—by its speakers every day. Rather than a sign of corruption and disorder, this is language in its full vitality—a living, evolving organism. NORMs may want to extract the mutation, preserve the mammoth in a block of ice. But they're doomed. When it comes to language, the rules of natural selection apply: Evolve or perish.