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The Truth About Vocal Fry

2014-08A261

Perhaps you’ve heard of vocal fry, a quality of speech often associated with the likes of Kim Kardashian or Katy Perry. American media stories detailing vocal fry sometimes warn us that it’s damaging to our vocal cords, and that women who use vocal fry are jeopardizing their job prospects. As wonderful as it is that the mass media is paying attention to phonetics, much of what is said about vocal fry is not, strictly speaking, true. This particular quality of speech has been around since humans could produce language. It’s not damaging to your vocal cords, and it’s used by everyone—men and women alike.

Vocal fry, known among linguists as creaky voice, is a specific type of phonation caused by slackening the vocal cords. In regular speech, the vocal cords vibrate to release a steady stream of air, but in creaky voice the lax cords vibrate irregularly, flapping open and closed so that air comes out in audible spurts.

Contrary to what some speech pathologists claim, vocal fry is not bad for your vocal folds. In fact, there are languages such as Danish, Vietnamese, and Zapotec in which vocal fry is a distinguishing phonetic feature, and removing it would be the equivalent of replacing a vowel or consonant from a word in English. It is a natural voice quality, particularly common at the end of sentences when a speaker’s airflow tends to weaken. (Read that last sentence aloud and see for yourself how your voice changes at the word “weaken.”)

Phoneticians have been studying vocal fry for decades, and outside of the increased media attention there is no evidence that vocal fry is becoming more prevalent among today’s English speakers. More importantly, there is no evidence that women use vocal fry any more than men, or that vocal fry sounds inherently annoying, unhirable, or, as Naomi Wolf wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian, like a Valley girl who “had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night.”

Vocal fry lowers the voice’s pitch, which is perhaps why linguistic studies by Ikuko Yuasa of Berkeley and Penny Eckert of Stanford have found that vocal fry is characteristic of urban, upwardly mobile, hirable women, and that listeners under the age of 40 associate vocal fry with authority. Other speech communities have similar associations with vocal fry. Linguist David Crystal cited vocal fry as a feature of men’s speech of the British upper-class, who use it to signal their high status.

The oft-cited study that first announced American women are less hirable if they speak with vocal fry has been widely discredited by linguists. The experimenters, none of them linguists, used recordings of speakers imitating vocal fry rather than using it naturally. If this doesn’t sound problematic, listen to the recordings for yourself. If you pay attention, you’ll hear that most of the “regular speech” recordings include vocal fry, too.

So why all the fuss? Why condemn a harmless speech pattern that is nothing new and that, in reality, many people view positively? This is a typical bout of “female language” bashing. We’ve seen it before with Valley girl speak, packed with “like” and uptalk, and we will see it again after the current vocal fry outrage sizzles out. Why? Because young women are language innovators. It’s a well-known fact among linguists that the language of teenage girls is a half to a full generation ahead of that of boys. Experts agree: young women lead the rest of the population in language change, and have done so for quite some time.

We unfortunately live in a world where language is linked to stereotypes, where some accents are associated with prestige and others with a lack of education. But the vocal fry “epidemic” is something different, for it has nothing to do with the sound and everything to do with the speaker. Vocal fry is rampant across the media, but it is only women who are reproached for it. If you have the urge to chide anyone for vocal fry, you should first take a moment to carefully listen to yourself—chances are, you’re frying, creaking, or whatever you want to call it, along with the rest of us.

39 Comments

  1. Keith M Bender -  August 26, 2016 - 10:07 am

    A clearly missed opportunity to have included a Recording……..

    An article about Sound with no sound? Now how do you tink that sounds?
    Maybe the author was afraid we would get Addicted as we Added Diction to this observation offered.

    Reply
    • akram john -  October 26, 2016 - 1:26 am

      Vocal Fry really a very attractive topic .I thought that there would be at least an audio to listen so that others could understand that what vocal fry is .Please upload an example of vocal fry.

      Reply
  2. Jason Rigby -  March 21, 2016 - 2:37 pm

    Well, this article isn’t biased in the least. (/sarcasm) Somehow it more appears that the author is likely defending her own manner of speech, and propping up an otherwise sagging ego with significant sexist overtones, and only perpetuating a childish and condemnable us-vs-them mentality.

    Reply
    • Karen Molloy -  March 26, 2016 - 7:59 am

      I would like to see the research to support that vocal fry is” not damaging to your vocal cords.” I am currently in voice therapy with a speech therapist because of a vocal polyp. The main thing we work on is changing the pattern of speech to “frontal resonance” which is the opposite of vocal fry. She has told me that vocal fry is very damaging to vocal cords. Unless you have research to back up your claim that is not, I’ll trust my speech therapist. (By the way, I did not speak or sing with much vocal fry previously. One of the ways to avoid vocal fry is having adequate air behind your voice so you don’t trail off into fry at the end of sentences.)

      Reply
  3. Dart -  December 27, 2015 - 2:34 am

    Many women over 35 are now using vocal fry.

    I have a problem hearing the last two or three words spoken in a sentence by many a vocal fryer.

    People using vocal fry, when alternating with a high pitched nasal voice, are also on the rise.

    Reply
    • Steve@alliancetechnology -  February 25, 2016 - 8:21 pm

      It’s one of the most annoying sound of our times. It’s started by feminists and took a life of its own. Inow men do it. In the end it will be in the history books as a brief period when people tried to act something they were not. Like hippies. Like disco freaks. Like many groups trying to forge a look or feel. We will be laughing at this one some day. Taking in your correct middle range with strong emphasis at the end of a sentence is actually more powerful than drifting off I to a child’s pre nap tired creaky voice.

      Reply
      • Susan -  November 3, 2016 - 6:43 pm

        Vocal fry was started by feminists? Absurd. Vocal Fry is a relatively new phenomenon, and it has ZIP to do with feminists or feminism, which is NOT new. Vocal Fry is an annoying habit, sadly perpetuated by today’s young women, and I can assure you that it has no basis in feminist thought. Like “Valley Speech” of the 1980s, it too will die, but it will take many young women’s vocal chords along with it. This article is a load of bunk, by the way. It is horrible for one’s voice, particularly if the speaker wishes to sing professionally. It is very difficult to take an habitual vocal fryer seriously. Just watch that new Sensodyne Pro Namel commercial with the Dentist who fries her way through the whole thing. I can’t change the channel fast enough.

        Reply
  4. george -  September 17, 2015 - 6:03 am

    Very interesting article. Please write more.

    Reply
  5. Brad -  September 4, 2015 - 10:55 am

    ‘there is no evidence that women use vocal fry any more than men, or that vocal fry sounds inherently annoying”

    I could not wholeheartedly disagree more. For me, vocal fry far surpasses all 10 fingernails being drag scraped across a chalk board as far as inherent annoyance is concerned and any given time I listen to any given form of talk radio, vocal fry is irritatingly being exercised on the air by any given woman on a daily basis.

    Reply
    • Meagan -  October 4, 2015 - 4:16 pm

      men do it just as much you are just hyper aware of women doing it because you are most likely just hyperaware of women in general, brad. especially if there’s a chance to say something negative.

      Reply
      • MM -  October 23, 2015 - 1:25 pm

        @Meagen — Much idiocy in you to be found.

        Reply
    • Dart -  December 27, 2015 - 2:37 am

      Some vocal frys bother me, Brad, others using vocal fry I actually like, but it still distracts me from what the vocal fryer is saying.

      Some, not many men use fry.

      Reply
    • TheIronyIsKillingMe -  January 14, 2016 - 2:38 pm

      It’s hilarious that you think elaborating how extremely biased you are adds legitimacy to your uncited claim in response to a cited article.

      Reply
  6. Dan -  September 1, 2015 - 2:37 pm

    Sorry, the article leaves me cold. I don’t know what this thing, “vocal fry”, is and couldn’t identify it if I were to actually hear some of it.

    What would strengthen the article, for me, at least, would be for the author to attach a couple of sound files illustrating the phenomenon, so we who are not “in the know” might understand better what is being discussed!!!

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Joe -  September 6, 2015 - 11:07 am

      Dan. There are examples linked within the text. I will copy and paster it here, but if the link does not work, go back to the article and read the 6th paragraph. The word, “recordings” is hyper-linked to another page that has several .WAV file recordings of different females reading a thank you statement in the “vocal fry” intonation. They also have recordings reading the same statement without the “vocal fry”. Here is the sentence: “If this doesn’t sound problematic, listen to the recordings for yourself. If you pay attention, you’ll hear that most of the “regular speech” recordings include vocal fry, too.”

      Reply
      • Kim -  April 6, 2016 - 1:35 pm

        I listened to the recordings and still don’t understand what vocal fry is meant to be!

        Reply
  7. Lyd -  August 31, 2015 - 2:51 pm

    I find vocal fry irritating for the same reason I find many other forms of speech irritating; because they are insincere. I detest facades. These people are INTENTIONALLY speaking a certain way, with conscious effort, in order to fit some fashionable image they have in their heads. In this case, it’s this cutsie-pootsie-babydoll crap, as vocal fry sounds the way 5 year children speak when they’re sleepy.

    Reply
    • MM -  September 1, 2015 - 11:20 am

      @Lyd, I couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
    • John Haskins -  September 3, 2015 - 3:14 pm

      There is no way you could possibly know whether a speaker is using vocal fry intentionally. It could simply be the way they talk. You don’t know.

      Reply
      • Baldrz -  January 19, 2016 - 3:21 am

        You know they’re doing it intentionally when they drop it completely in other contexts. Some amount of vocal fry is natural for both men and women, but it’s become an affectation for certain people.

        Reply
      • Lisa -  September 20, 2016 - 1:47 pm

        My voice has attained this vocal fry quality over the past year through no fault of my own. I didn’t try to make my voice sound this way, and I’m trying to find out how to repair or heal the issue so I can speak normally again. I certainly do not INTEND to speak this way. It actually seems like my voice seems tired and gravelly. I actually went to an endocrinologist because I thought it may be linked to an abnormal thyroid. Anyway, please don’t judge. You have no idea if it’s intentional or not.

        Reply
    • Sarah -  May 28, 2016 - 2:18 am

      I’m fifteen. I’m a girl. At the end of almost every sentence my voice faded off into vocal fry. It’s annoying, and I’ve tried to stop it, but it’s a continuous conscious effort to do so. I do not put it on.

      Reply
      • Susan -  November 3, 2016 - 6:46 pm

        There is a Sensodyne Pro Namel commercial, with a dark haired Dentist talking about the product. I cannot change the channel fast enough. Her voice makes everything she says sound utterly stupid.

        Reply
        • Susan -  November 3, 2016 - 6:57 pm

          I don’t know why my comment was left twice, in two different spots. I apologize for that, however, can’t seem to fix it. That said, Sarah, try finishing your sentences with more air. The fry happens when you trap the air behind your vocal chords, instead of letting the air come forward. It will take some practice, but you can replace that fry with something less irritating to your vocal chords, and less irritating to those listening.

          Reply
  8. G Schultz -  August 31, 2015 - 11:11 am

    I too could have done without the feminist rant at the end. Personally, I only find vocal fry annoying when male singers do it, which seems to be a lot more prevalent today than 30 years ago. I’m male, and don’t care if the ladies do it or not, but when men do it I think “Can’t you actually carry those notes, man?? Can’t you sing clearly??”

    Reply
  9. Ulcer Diamore -  August 31, 2015 - 4:31 am

    There was no need to go all feministic at the end..

    Reply
    • Michelle Most -  August 31, 2015 - 12:04 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. The author went off on a tangent, seemingly to try to be more politically relevant. It only managed to obscure the message of the article.

      Bad author. Bad.

      Reply
  10. Valknut -  August 30, 2015 - 2:06 am

    For all the talk about vocal fry, one thing has remained unsaid … it’s simply annoying as heck and sounds more like a languid “death rattle” than an attempt at intelligible speech by an intelligent person.

    Reply
    • MM -  August 31, 2015 - 11:50 am

      @Valknut, I second that.

      Reply
      • Dart -  December 27, 2015 - 2:46 am

        I too second it, for many but not all fryers. I like it in some women.
        How many of us find it hard to hear vocal fry as a voice trails of at the end of a sentence.’

        Very many accuse vocal fry users as trying to sound like a teen. I too notice this, but only when the woman uses her voice in other ways that are characteristic f many teenage girls, including cuteness, where the voice rises and falls, etc….So when a fifty-ish woman fries and uses other vocal features reminiscent of a teenager that I tend to hear her voice, less so what she is saying..

        Reply
  11. Michael Kambas -  August 29, 2015 - 5:32 pm

    “Because young women are language innovators” ?

    We do not have independent confirmation of the above statement yet, nor is there any citation to support it. Not yet.

    What I do hear all the time as of late is girls addressing each other as “guys” or “dudes.”

    Reply
    • Michael Kambas -  August 29, 2015 - 5:34 pm

      Oh, and by the way, I personally find vocal fry, male or female, extremely charming and sexy.

      Reply
  12. Calitri -  August 28, 2015 - 10:19 pm

    What utter nonsense. Vocal fry is a typical fad, (something (such as an interest or fashion) that is very popular for a short time) but
    it certainly should not be a topic that generates the opinions of linguists or journalists. Who are the people who view this manner of speaking in a positive fashion, the Kardashians? How can anyone take this seriously when one of the innovators is a Kardashians? The absurdity of this article.

    It’s a silly puerile affectation by some young girls who go through their craze of immaturity and insecurity. Sadly and pathetically, mothers are now emulating their daughters with uptalk and vocal fry, because they themselves never desired to graduate to an adult style of language.

    Furthermore, the reason women are reproached for vocal fry is because they are the ones predominately using this speech pattern.

    Reply
    • MM -  September 3, 2015 - 11:51 am

      @Calitri, I agree!

      Reply
    • Baldrz -  January 19, 2016 - 3:27 am

      Well put, Calitri. They do it to sound cutesy and nonthreatening to men, and it’s annoying as hell. What’s worse is that in some circles they refuse to grow out of it, as the Valley girls did in the ’80s (thank goodness).

      Reply
    • Susan -  November 3, 2016 - 7:00 pm

      Absolutely agree. I have worked with young women as a voice teacher. This can KILL a singing voice. It is a fad, and an incredibly ugly and irritating one at that. I think this article is bunk.

      Reply
  13. MM -  August 28, 2015 - 9:31 pm

    Honestly, sounds like an SJW piece more than anything.

    Reply
  14. Tori -  August 28, 2015 - 8:07 am

    I spent some time in Russia and Eastern Europe where women still have a rich, full voice then returned to the US. I had never realize how bad young women had become. Vocal fry is *of course* real and more prevalent now than before. Now, the term may not be the best one as it is conflated with “creaky voice” tied to things like certain Vietnamese tones and sounds in various languages (as you mentioned). So maybe another more specific term should be coined for this phenomenon.
    Go back and watch TV shows and movies from the 70s and 80s. It was in the 90s that it began to change with young women, and it is a very very evident change. Men use it now too, but I don’t hear it as much with them. They have some of their own aural assaults. You can’t use PC notions of gender to squelch opinions forever.

    Reply
  15. Akinbode Isiaka Abayomi -  August 27, 2015 - 10:17 pm

    I would like to subscribe in order to receive daily postings thanks.

    Reply

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