12 December 2011

"Vocal fry" ("the creep") explained

Excerpts from a very interesting article in Science.  I had never heard the terms before.
A curious vocal pattern has crept into the speech of young adult women who speak American English: low, creaky vibrations, also called vocal fry.

Pop singers, such as Britney Spears, slip vocal fry into their music as a way to reach low notes and add style. 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. 

Vocal fry, or glottalization, is a low, staccato vibration during speech, produced by a slow fluttering of the vocal chords*. Since the 1960s, vocal fry has been recognized as the lowest of the three vocal registers, which also include falsetto and modal—the usual speaking register.

Speakers creak differently according to their gender, although whether it is more common in males or females varies among languages. In American English, anecdotal reports suggest that the behavior is much more common in women. (In British English, the pattern is the opposite.)

Historically, continual use of vocal fry was classified as part of a voice disorder that was believed to lead to vocal chord* damage. However, in recent years, researchers have noted occasional use of the creak in speakers with normal voice quality...

The researchers also plan to test students in high schools and middle schools to learn why young women creak when they speak. "Young students tend to use it when they get together," Abdelli-Beruh says. "Maybe this is a social link between members of a group." Abdelli-Beruh also wants to compare the prevalence of vocal fry on radio stations. For example, she says that the popular-music station on her teenage son's dial features creaky announcers, but she does not hear vocal fry on National Public Radio, which targets an older audience. 
More at the link. You can hear a subtle example of vocal fry in this segment from This American Life (broadcast on NPR), but the best example I have found is the speech of "Grammar Girl" (click here to listen, because I don't know how to embed) (hat tip to Redditor maryjayjay).

I've heard this speech pattern, never paid any attention to it, and now probably won't be able to "unhear" it.

*A big "sic."  It drives me crazy when science publications misspell vocal cords.

p.s. - does anyone know why it's called "fry"?  Is it because it creates sort of a sizzling sound??

35 comments:

  1. Several of the audio personalities on my local NPR station have prominent vocal fry. I had never heard the phrase before, but as soon as I read the description, I knew instantly what you were talking about because of those NPR voices. Besides that, I too have noticed this manner of speech, often in young women -- as well as myself (a guy). I (and I think they) tend to do it when forced to speak under very 'self-aware' circumstances. We're trying to sound good, but were never trained to speak properly, and no one has pointed out that we are croaking like frogs. That's how I noticed when I do it -- it was pointed out to me.

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  2. University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor, Mark Liberman takes issue with this description of the study in a post at Language Log.

    The study never claims to show that use of the "vocal fry" voicing has been increasing, nor that its occasional use is a sign of a speech disorder.

    There's a lot of technical linguistics in Liberman's post, but the main point is that "...these "low creaky vibrations" have been common since forever. And moderate use, especially at the ends of phrases, has never been considered a speech disorder."

    It is cool, though, that people outside the rarified world of academic linguistics are noticing creaky voicing now.

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  3. This was on Boingboing, where the comments were mostly depressingly judgemental.

    "Creaky voice" is a natural linguistic feature, used phonetically in many languages (including Dutch) and apparently present in some varieties of english. Yay!

    Interesting the article says this isn't heard of NPR, but the immediate reaction from some is "Oh, THAT'S the NPR voice." Ira Glass definitely has it, I don't hear it in Terri Gross.

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  4. I know a 5 year old (!) who does something like this, an inaudible scratchy sound that almost sounds like speaking on the inhale. May not be the same thing but this story is everywhere in the past few days.

    And +1 for noting the misuse of "chords." I was wondering how that slipped into your writing and was glad to see you call it out.

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  5. My now-21 year old daughter has been doing this since highschool, and I've heard many others her age do it, too. I notice because Way Back When I trained as a speech pathologist, and we considered vocal fry to be a harmful vocal practice (not actually a disorder, more of a harmful habit). It drives me mildly crazy to hear all these young women doing it...

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  6. To me, sadly, it implies a certain "valley girl" -esque fluffiness, or a lack of sophistication. I find it hard to take seriously, especially when it comes from the science freshmen I work with.

    This and uptalking. They make me crazy.

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  7. " I find it hard to take seriously, especially when it comes from the science freshmen I work with. "

    I hope everyone realizes that these kind of stigmatizations, while natural, are irrational and should be overcome.

    I have the same thing with southern accents. I tend to assume, instantly, that the speaker is racist. I shouldn't, and I try to get past that.

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  8. It's interesting, I recently noticed that I've been using this "vocal fry" in my speech much more often since I moved to Los Angeles and started picking up the accent. Even before that I've always associated it with SoCal girls.

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  9. Interesting... I work at UC Berkeley in California and notice this among many of the students. There's another speech trend I hear quite a bit as well, especially in California among women under about age 30. I call it S-whistling. They add a faint hissing kind of whistle at the end of words ending is S. It's annoying to the point of distraction. Would love to see you do a post investigating that.

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  10. My niece has spoken like this since she was a teen (46 now). And you are correct ~ I've heard it for years, but never paid much attention to it... much less knew thee was a name for it!!

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  11. I work on a floor with a lot of female customer service people and there are two ladies who talk with a what I think is being described here. (Due to our IT dept I cant listen to most audio or video.) They talk kinda slow with a scratchy-ish drawl. On the younger lady (my age) I have no problem with it. With the older lady (40's?) it's freaking annoying and I want to tell her to shut up everytime.

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  12. Our local NPR affiliate has several on-air personalities who have this speech pattern as well. They also have the "every sentence ends like a question??" and the "s whistling" too. Their trendy speech patterns do not give the impression of serious, reliable journalists. I'll take Mara Liasson or Renee Montaigne's voice any day.

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  13. They sound like little girls rather than grown women. And yes, one has to work at taking them seriously.

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  14. There are any number of female folk rockers(chick w/guitar(or piano), singing) that are doing this now. Who can say where the modern genesis is? It doesn't bother as much as the trend I noted about 15-20 years ago: young women singing in gospel style couldn't hold a note in a song where holding the note for a beat or two was required; they'd run up and down the scale, notes at random intervals-ON PURPOSE. Drove me crazy, and I only heard it once or twice. I think they were emulating Whitney Houston- when she was something worth emulating. Even if she still was worth emulating, most kids aren't good enough to pull it off.

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  15. I've been noticing this more and more in those employed in the media. I didn't know it had a name, but these people are trying to speak outside of their vocal range. It's almost the opposite of 'up-talkers' that sound like all vocalizations are questions.
    I know vocal fry has been with us for some time judging by the experts here, but it seemed to really become a fad when Moon Unit Zappa made us aware of "Valley Girl" speech from the San Fernando Valley in So. California.

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  16. JK, It's called "noodling". Annoying, isn't it?

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  17. Re the "S-whistling," it's apparently called "sigmatism" and it's discussed in these two articles:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/30/science/30qna.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/01/science/01whis.html

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  18. I learned it as the "growl register".

    A completely empirically unsupported guess would be that the modern re-emergence may have started with my generation (Gen-X) when it was used to affect an apathetic and disinterested tone. Very cool at the time.

    Interestingly I don't perceive the Grammar Girl piece as particularly growly or unusual. If I listen for it I can hear it, but I could have listened to the whole piece and not noticed a thing.

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  19. I've always spoken this way because I have a deeper voice than most women. I do it more when I'm under pressure or am having a serious conversation. I do it automatically and it is difficult for me not to. I notice that people, especially men, pay closer attention to what I am saying when I do this.

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  20. -also, I have to agree with what Abbie said. Language is forever changing for each new generation and the previous generations always criticize. It's equally difficult to alter the inherent locomotion of my vocal chords as it was to cease the overuse of the word "like" as a substitute for pauses in speech or vocally designate a quote. I'm a college grad going on to get my bachelor's so it is insulting to have someone assume I am incompetent because of my speech pattern regardless of how accurate my annunciation is.

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  21. Um - not wantingto hurt your feelings, but I have to point out that annunciation is what happened to the virgin Mary. You meant how accurate your enunciation is.

    --Raoul.

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  22. I think in many cases it's an effort to sound cutesy or sexy. It's mostly just annoying.

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  23. See also 'Death metal vocal exercises'. Just google it and play the video, I seem to have issues with posting links here.

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  24. good grief. Seriously, if your enunciation is such that people aren't taking you seriously, it's time to seriously reconsider your enunciation.

    "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain"

    And if it's a group thing, and that group is, in fact, associated with certain traits....then hearing the vocal habit brings to mind the group, and the traits. Good, if one appreciates the traits. Not so good if the traits are not appreciated.

    In my area, that vocal creak is definitely associated with particular traits. Perhaps in other areas that is not the case. It is an unfortunate habit, as is uptalking (a questioning inflection to statements that are not questions), which leads to the speaker appearing uncertain of what they are saying. Both here are associated with young, "frivolous" girls...not an association I would want as a mature individual seeking serious work.

    YMMV.

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    Replies
    1. That would be "stays mainly in the plain."

      Delete
  25. This voice creak, additionally, is not "inherent", but a learned habit.

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  26. I didn't know this had a name :) It has been going on for ages, and does seem to be aspirational in some way.

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  27. This voice creak, additionally, is not "inherent", but a learned habit.

    Huh? All language is learned habit.

    And if it's a group thing, and that group is, in fact, associated with certain traits....then hearing the vocal habit brings to mind the group, and the traits. Good, if one appreciates the traits. Not so good if the traits are not appreciated.


    Well yes, stereotyping is an unfortunate human tendency. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try to overcome it.

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  28. That's funny, the link to Grammar Girl doesn't go to an example of vocal fry. It's a page about active vs. passive voice.

    --Swift Loris

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  29. @ Abbie: Where did you learn that creaky voice is used phonemically in Dutch? I think you're confused with Danish (the other language that sounds like a throat disease).

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  30. @Swift - that's right. It's not the subject matter that's important. Just click the audio and listen to her voice as she discusses active voice.

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  31. Abbie

    re inherent.

    Yes. See Anonymous 4:05 who thinks that the creak is inherent. My point is that any vocal habit (language, fry, singing) can be changed, it is not inherent. Babies can make ALL possible human sounds - from there, it's habit/use, but certainly not heredity.

    If one wishes to be employed where one's habits are poorly-received, one would do well to at least attempt to modify those habits. Well-modulated speech is possible whatever your accent.

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  32. "This voice creak, additionally, is not "inherent", but a learned habit."

    this is not true for some people, including myself. It's similar to a facial tick when nervous. If you've ever played poker you would know that everyone has a tell. It can be controlled with hard work but is the natural reaction to a stressful situation. -.-

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  33. I never knew this had a name and I don't think I consciously use it except for humor but I do use it unconsciously. Probably when I'm tired or when I'm not paying attention and my breath control isn't what it could be. I, too, have a low voice for a woman and it's easy to drop it to a buzz.

    "This voice creak, additionally, is not 'inherent', but a learned habit."

    I never set out to learn this. I think it is inherent to my voice and I certainly don't actively employ it to be cute or sexy, as another poster suggested.

    I'm already cute and sexy without saying a thing. ;^p

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  34. I knew this post reminded me of someone and I finally made the connection, it's J Mascis from the band Dinosaur Jr in this interview:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASS8MJibvmU

    ~E

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