What the heck is Vocal Fry?

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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 speech and language here.

Anatomy of the Voice: An Illustrated Guide for Singers, Vocal Coaches, and Speech Therapists

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

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34 thoughts on “What the heck is Vocal Fry?

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  4. @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.

  5. 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!

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

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

    Tu nalga rules!

  10. 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 ???

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    1. Yes, so you can say, “I’m eating my rasher, leave me alone” and that is correct. But a phrase like “a rasher of bacon and a fried egg” has been considered correct over the last century or so.

  13. The dropping off in a lower register is common to men and women, but may be more noticeable in women. It is a result of not supporting speech with enough air. The voice is coming from the throat without any support from the diaphram or breath. If the speaker would occasionally stop to breathe (something that prevent another annoying phenomenon of running on endlessly without a break), and carry the breath through to the end of the sentence, this growling would not occur. If your career depends on your speaking voice being in good shape, then you should invest a bit in vocal coaching/training to save your voice. One good rule – where there would normally be a comma in written text, take a breath.

  14. Men do it all the time and it hurts my ears.

    Hahaha by now you’ve seen the video of Howard Stern critiquing vocal fry entirely in vocal fry.

  15. Creaky voices annoy me beyond belief. It is literally everywhere amongst men and women across the UK now, particularly those under 40 but really no-one is safe. Since I started noticing it a couple of years ago, my life is becoming less bearable by the day! I have had to sit next to groups of people on the train who sound like they are scratching the paint off the carriage walls with their vocal cords, listen to recruitment agent, estate agents, friends, relatives, all of whom have now decided to gradually damage their vocal cords and make my eardrums melt in pain. I’ve actually had a girl on the phone creak so much that I could barely understand what she was saying, it was like constant distortion down the line!
    I have discovered that there is even a kind of half-creak which is where you can detect someone’s voice always teetering on the brink of creak and then sometimes dipping into creak a bit at the end of sentences. It makes me want to cut my own eyes out.
    The main problem is that I can’t see it stopping, it’s been getting worse over the last few years.
    Somebody please kill me!!!

  16. Writer of this blog post is a sexist who hates women, thinks young women are annoying and uses his learning of `vocal fry’ to justify his sexist attitudes to women.

    TL;DR: yet another blogger trying to slam young women for using their natural voice… Probably due to fear or hate of all women.

  17. Wow, was I ever glad to read this. I’ve noticed this irritating style of speaking for some years now, and only recently discovered it has a name – Vocal Fry!! It’s anything but the natural use of one’s speaking voice – on the contrary, it,s so artificial, so annoying, so distracting to the listener. Why can’t people just be natural?

    1. Yes its weird that it takes a while to isolate it in your mind in a way. I don’t know what the States is like but over here in the UK it is pretty much epidemic now. I don’t know why people keep thinking its a female thing… I’ve seen it more often in women but its definitely affecting both sexes. Its so affected, I can’t believe more people aren’t annoyed about it or talking about it. Younger, trendier kids are far more likely to do it. Its the first thing I notice now. I can’t tell you what a relief it is when you meet people who aren’t doing it – their voices sound so good! I am actually worried about not being able to find a girl to go out with who doesn’t do it now. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it.

  18. Cockney was the same in-group identifier. Specifically it was inmate group identifier, done so that the guards who were not cockney would not know what was being said and planned.

    Of course it then became set in stone since all communication requires a common set of meanings to actually convey information and it spread outside the prisons into the general culture and the guards eventually found out what the words meant.

    It’s not annoying, it’s different. And therefore notable. And therefore the teenagers, being adults who are still “wired” by conditioning to be children and therefore trying to rewire the programming and find out who they, as an adult in this world, are, WANT to be noticed and different. And then others want to be like them to identify with whoever they are.

    And, being notable, if it’s not a speech pattern a “grown up” already knows and is comfortable with, finds the patterns and vocalisations unusual, unexpected, therefore grating.

    When done by teenagers, there’s zero problem. It’s how they work out their difference from the child the parents and society wrote them to be.

    If older, it is less useful since it is picked up from what’s “new” as an affectation, not a re-learning process and the annoying is real.

    But if they used to talk like that, then “they don’t know better” (from an older generations’ POV) which can be laid as an issue either at the younger or the older generation. It’s just learned preference and it’s not faked on either side.

  19. Thankfully, I no longer live in California where this phenomenon was prevalent. I now live in a part of the country where people are ‘normal’ and don’t don such airs. Thank heavens!

  20. The author might also have absolutely no problem at all with phrases like “the whole, entire time” and “ATM machine” and “hot water heater”…

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