Friday, December 16, 2011

Vocal fry

Several years ago I took a job in an organization where many of my colleagues were young, smart and capable women. When I started, I was trained by a young woman I'll call Natalie, and she had a habitual way of expressing the sentiment of affirmation, agreement - that is, "Yes."

She would smile, nod slightly, turn her downcast eyes to the side a little and growl, "Egg-zaaaaaaaaact-ley."  Tonally, it would go "Up - down - down." The quality of her voice was gravelly, a kind of almost scraping sound.

Another vocal tick common to young women is the tendency to end sentances on an up note? like you're asking a question? - this seems to convey the sense of  uncertainty or submission - you're not sure you're right and would defer to your listener if they chose to contradict you.

But this growly-voice is different. I started to notice it being used a lot, especially when the speaker wanted to be taken seriously, or in a professional setting. It's like they are deliberately pitching their voices lower in order to sound more authoritative. It's an increasingly more commonly heard tone of speech from women salespeople, women spokespersons, radio journalists - the young ones, at least.

Many singers use this growling sound - it's a signature sound for Britney Spears' voice. In this context, I think it's supposed to be sexy and assertive, almost predatory.

I even started to notice myself falling into the habit, and tried to control myself, because I don't like how mannered it sounds.

Well, I just learned the name of the phenomenon, or the name for that register of speech: "Vocal fry." It can be technically described as a low stacatto vibration produced by the fluttering of the vocal chords. For previous generations, vocal fry was considered a speech defect, or something that happened if your voice was damaged. In some languages, vocal fry is a intentional factor that signifies the meaning of a word. Vocal fry also has been used to frighten people - just remember how the child character Danny Torrance said "Redrum!"

A recently published study by Long Island University scholars Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, Lesley Wolk and Dianne Slavin found that college age women are increasingly more likely to use the vocal fry register in their everyday speech - almost 2/3rds of the women in the study.  The growling sound was most frequently used at the end of sentences.

Have you noticed "vocal fry" in your friends' and colleagues' speech? What's your take - annoying, or OK?
Do you "fry" when you speak?

At least I'm glad we know what to call it now. Maybe naming a fad mean that it's soon over.

UPDATE: You can hear vocal fry in the opening lyrics of Britney Spears' song "One More Time" or if you're not a Britney fan, you can hear it HERE.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I've only spoken to the birds and bees and Nutkin, recently, Aunt Snow.


Anonymous said...

Aunt Snow, can you direct me to a link on youtube so I can hear it? I'm coming to you from an information vacuum where Britney Spears is never heard... although it is possible that my cat speaks to me in that way. ;)

Alexia said...

This is really interesting, and confirms something I have noticed increasingly over the last 5 years or so. It's good to have a label for it!
Many of the young women I teach (16-18 year-olds) seem to have this husky/gravelly/whisky-drinker timbre to their voices.

Deborah said...

I haven't heard much of the "vocal fry" but I'll pay closer attention from now on.

Now, the bit about ending your sentences on an up note, I have heard that a lot but mostly from those with British accents. A friend of mine moved to England in the 1980s and when I visited her several years later, I noticed how her manner of speech had switched to include that questioning intonation at the end of sentences.

I was pointing out that phenomenon to my husband recently while watching an episode of House Hunters in Australia, they were speaking in much the same way.