What the heck is Vocal Fry?

Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even know what the heck Vocal Fry is. Apparently some people have gotten really annoyed about it, as it is a speech mannerism that has emerged among young folks, who are always annoying, and especially females, who are always annoying. Apparently. (I also did not know that until a few minutes ago! I’m learning a lot of new stuff today!)

It’s been written up in a scientific journal (see below), in popular media, and it was brought to my attention by a facebook post of Debby Goddard’s. But of all the sources I’ve seen, the following video best describes the phenomenon for those who don’t already know what it is:

Speech mannerisms come and go, and they seem to be part of the cultural process of ever-shifting styles. Some have suggested (Trigger warning: Possible Pop Psychology!) that this is an ingroup-outgroup mechanism. If you don’t know the current mannerisms, you can’t sit at the Middle School lunch table with the other cool kids.

Here’s an interesting thing about speech mannerisms: When we Westerners see them in other cultures, we (well, not you and me, but those other Westerners) often glom onto them as markers for primitivism or as indicators of less than fully developed culture or even language. A great example for those who know it is the banter of the men in the film The Feast, a Chagnon film depicting a Yanomamo Feast (more about the feast here). The men are bartering, arguing, making alliances, and showing off, and it is done with a cadence almost as though they were rapping. This is on top of the already highly nasalized language, and with face and hand gestures that vaguely resemble Western children complaining about things. This makes them look like children. Of course, they are talking about important matters of local economy, about death and warfare, about relationships, marriage, and so on. They are not acting like children in their own culture but they are heavily invested in a highly stylized set of vocal mannerisms that are not easy for a Westerner (well, those other Westerners) to interpret.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt has been said that Vocal Fry is the new Valley Speech, and if so we can see the lilting rise at the end of every single sentence replaced with a dropping of tone and glottalization at the end of every sentence, on certain TV ads and in certain sitcoms.

Language log has a discussion here. Slate has something here. And, here it is in Science Now.

The Journal of Voice reports a study, Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers.

The purpose of this study was to examine the use of vocal fry in young adult Standard American-English (SAE) speakers. This was a preliminary attempt to determine the prevalence of the use of this register in young adult college-aged American speakers and to describe the acoustic characteristics of vocal fry in these speakers. Subjects were 34 female college students. They were native SAE speakers aged 18–25 years. Data collection procedures included high quality recordings of two speaking conditions, (1) sustained isolated vowel /a/ and (2) sentence reading task. Data analyses included both perceptual and acoustic evaluations. Results showed that approximately two-thirds of this population used vocal fry and that it was most likely to occur at the end of sentences. In addition, statistically significant differences between vocal fry and normal register were found for mean F0 minimum, F0 maximum, F0 range, and jitter local. Preliminary findings were taken to suggest that use of the vocal fry register may be common in some adult SAE speakers.

You can access that paper here.

I think the most interesting finding may be one they are not too sure of based on the available data. Fry has been around a while, and has in the past been reported as a marker for larger scale chunks of speech, like paragraph-size utterances, but the new use is simply to fry-out the ends of sentences. If this turns out to be the case it constitutes an arbitrary re-use of an extant vocalization tool as a purely stylistic form rather than as a marker of meaning, since we probably already could tell where sentences ended. Also, it needs to be noted (as they do in the study) that this particular research does not identify focal fry as a thing done by females of a certain age. This study simply looked at females of a certain age, and did not attempt to identify the demographic parameters of the mannerism’s use.

__________________________________

More about Language here.

Wolk, L., Abdelli-Beruh, N., & Slavin, D. (2012). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers Journal of Voice, 26 (3) DOI: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.04.007

Photo of fries by Fklickr user Gudlyf

Comments

  1. #1 Noadi
    January 7, 2013

    I find it funny that all of a sudden this is a story like it’s a new phenomenon. Mae West has been dead longer than most the young women studied have been alive yet that typified the way she spoke http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L0eJp7V2Zs

    Her voice is very distinctive but it wasn’t uncommon at the time, Katherine Hepburn did it as well.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    January 7, 2013

    It certainly has been around for a long time, and those are great examples. The new part is the idea of shifting to this in the last word or phrase of every sentence, not as emphasis or as a marker, but only as an affectation.

  3. #3 ppnl
    January 7, 2013

    So vocal fry is valley girl gone to the dark side?

  4. #4 Shelix
    January 8, 2013

    The Slate piece was the first i encountered, and it has made me hyperaware of my own tendency to fry. I am female, but i am by no means young (40). Being a female in science, though, the Slate authors’ mention that affecting a lower, and therefore possibly more male, register helps females to be taken more seriously struck a chord. Certainly i have taken a conscious effort my entire life to lower my voice, especially in work settings, for exactly that reason.

    More anecdotally, having been a teenager during the Valley Girl speak phenomenon, it also occurred to me just now that a fry, a deepening of one’s voice, could be the logical antipode to the Valley Girl lilt. So in order to consciously or unconsciously set themselves apart from an older, less socially esteemed vocal pattern, people and girls in particular are overcompensating in the opposite direction. This last bit is mere speculation on my part, but given the speech patterns i’ve seen evolve over the past few decades it fits my personal, N of 1, experience.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    January 8, 2013

    @ppnl: No. The Language Log post identifies anglophone Chicanos as one population that has used vocal fry for decades (as an example, he posted the first minute of the Cheech Marin song “Born in East LA”). One of the commenters (a male born in 1944) noted that vocal fry used to be a reliable marker of West Coast dialect (northern California to British Columbia), and his professors at a Midwest university in the 1960s correctly identified him as coming from that region (he was born in Seattle) because he used vocal fry.

    It may be used today by the sort of woman who would have been a Valley Girl 30 years ago, but the Valley Girl dialect came from a different population: the southern California surfer community.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    January 8, 2013

    The SoCal surfer dialect may actually be a broader phenomenon. Around 1990 I encountered it full blown among the surfer community of the Tsitsikamma coast in South Africa. Over a couple of days I kept probing to find a direct US or California connection. US surfers certainly go there (some of the best surfing in the world) and they may have picked it up from them, but that wasn’t clear. Maybe it has something to do with getting hit by big waves again and again!

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    January 8, 2013

    Shelix, interesting conjecture, you could be on to something!

  8. #8 Mike
    January 8, 2013

    I love that video! I work with a lot of teens and don’t hear this affectation. Says a lot for my community!

  9. #9 Lauren Cook
    Philadelphia, PA
    January 8, 2013

    Greg, don’t forget that US surf movies, and I’m talking about films of competitions with commentary by competitors, probably had more of an impact on surfers in SA than the few surfers who made it out there. Until college linguistics in the late ’70s, surf films were the only place I’d heard vocal fry. Of course, within a few years, it was everywhere as part of “valspeak,” where it seemed to be commonly used as a marker of annoyance on the part of the speaker.

  10. #10 Abby Normal
    Virginia
    January 14, 2013

    I’m incredibly flattered that you used my video. Thank you very much.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2013

    I tried to get a vudeo by Lula Tallula Jeffries but she wasn’t available.

  12. […] what I’m talking about Youtube it–so you can feel my pain.  It’s a valley girl vocal fry Kardashian voice mix that is so bad my face squinches every time she speaks, argh!  But lets talk […]

  13. #13 Paul
    Seattle
    September 11, 2013

    Its also called “Old Hag”.

    Try the following. Repeat this using vocal fry:

    “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog too!”

    Sound familiar?

  14. […] of Kohler’s insight experiments from the perspective of Sultan the chimpanzeemy previous postvocal fry“lack of invariance”Riverfront Times.20089919 /* […]

  15. #15 Poo Poo Rulez!
    January 9, 2014

    People do stupid things for fads and fashion. Following the flock or the herd is repellant to me – so no problem.

    Tu nalga rules!

  16. #16 I-Sing
    Hawaii
    January 26, 2014

    The “vocal fry” is a vocal exercise / used in the morning or before stronger vocal exercises to relax & warm up the vocal cords / this is healthy and not damaging to the chords – the vocal fry is a soft “fire engine siren” sound that you produced to warm up the vocal cords / the exercise is done slowly / this woman has simply never truly studied vocalease … than again she has never truly studied comedy or performance or anything but her own reflection in the mirror mirror “off the wall” who is the most uninformed of them all ???

  17. #17 Pendit1
    Michigan
    June 5, 2014

    Yikes! This is the WORST… and surprisingly it’s infecting local and national newsrooms where female news-readers, aka ‘reporters’….hang out and read copy with this annoying , creaky, creepy voice affectation. How can ANYONE find this attractive or easy to listen to? A candidate for on air reporting wouldn’t be offered a script, much less a job with this stupid , self-inflicted
    condition.! Grrrrrrrrrr.

  18. #18 MaryL
    Toronto
    June 10, 2014

    I have spent much of my life talking for a living as a reference librarian and a teacher. I have never felt so old as when I worked a university library reference desk and found that a good chunk of the students — male and female — used uptalk. I wanted to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to state what should be stated and ask when they wanted to ask. (It’s entirely possible that despite being 5 foot nothing and volubly friendly and helpful, I still came off as an authority figure that made them more likely to uptalk.)

    But I have noticed some changes in my own speech in recent years. I noticed that when I recorded an online training session a while back. Most of the time, my voice was pretty animated and expressive, with lots of tonal variation. I declared quite a few things confidently, and I even used uptalk from time to time. (This wasn’t a deliberate choice, but it intuitively seemed to make sense in a classroom. 1990s me wept.)

    But there were a few defined situations where I found myself creaking like a barn door and frying like a rasher of bacon.

    1) When I was commiserating with my students about some dumb features of the software.
    2) When I was clarifying an explanation or repeating instructions for a student, reassuring them explicitly or implicitly that their confusion was my fault.
    3) When I was apologizing for a bad joke.

    So in my experience, at least, when in a professional capacity, vocal fry seems to act act as a leveler or some kind of social grooming. Reassurance, sympathy, apology: a cracking voice just seems to make it work, even though it was not at all a deliberate choice on my part. Maybe Bill Clinton knows something after all.

  19. […] your voice to its lowest register and it fries, or crackles or creaks. Lots of people go nuts about vocal fry and how it’s terrible. Anderson’s research suggests that people who use vocal fry […]

Current ye@r *