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When young women find their 'creaky' voice

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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As Zooey Deschanel, Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears go, so goeth the English language. Scary thought, no?

As the larger world obsesses with fiscal cliff-hanging, ongoing wars and the Super Bowl, a smaller group has focused on a language issue: the apparent rise of a phenomenon known as “vocal fry,” or “creaky voice.”

You might think of vocal fry as the counterpart to “uptalk.” You've heard of uptalk? It's where, like, everything sounds like a question? Even when a person is, like, telling you her name? And, like, every other word seems to be “like”?

California's San Fernando Valley took the blame for the often cringe-worthy uptalk, with its tag-along kid sister, “like.” With this annoying mode of speech, critics complained, Valley Girls advertise themselves as young, insecure, ignorant, and, well, female. But uptalk has spread far beyond the valley and made inroads into the mainstream.

Now along comes vocal fry into the spotlight. It's a kind of anti-falsetto, a deepening of the pitch of a word or phrase for emphasis. The above-mentioned Deschanel, Kardashian and Spears are widely cited exemplars. But the phenomenon is also widespread among women on campus — and Wall Street, at least one writer claims.

The most recent explosion of interest in the topic was touched off by a particularly curmudgeonly “Lexicon Valley” podcast by Bob Garfield a few weeks ago. Decrying creaky voice as “vulgar” and “repulsive,” he reached such a pitch of righteous indignation that I half expected him to call for the repeal of women's right to vote.

But there is another view. In “Creaky Voice: Yet Another Example of Young Women's Linguistic Ingenuity,” Gabriel Arana describes vocal fry as “a linguistic trend among young, upwardly mobile women.” He explains that it is the result of “compressing the vocal chords, which reduces the airflow through the larynx and the frequency of vibrations, causing speech to sound rattled or ‘creaky.' “ (Excuse me while I make myself a cup of tea with honey.)

Arana, writing online at The Atlantic, continues, “Women have long tended to be the linguistic innovators. The standard practice for linguists conducting research on a new language is to find a ‘NORM' — a non-mobile, older, rural male. NORMs are the most conservative linguistically, and typically serve as a model for where the language has been. If you want to see where the language is going, on the other hand, you find a young, urban woman.”

He also observes, “In large part, the story of language is one of the dominant political group trying to fix the linguistic code in place, and those below them pushing and pulling it loose.”

No wonder Norm Garfield, or excuse me, Bob, is so upset.

I won't defend creaky voice or uptalk as improvements in human communication. But while I'm of Garfield's generation, I'm not of his gender, and my hackles go up when my younger sisters come under fire.

I know that voice is an essential part of a woman's success in the public sphere. Margaret Thatcher and her team cared enough about this to hire Laurence Olivier as her speech coach.

The world has come a long way over the past half century in accepting that the voice of authority can speak in the treble register. But it's telling that at this late date something as personal as a speech mannerism elicits such emotional public responses. You've come a long way, baby, but you aren't quite there yet.

Ruth Walker is a staff writer for The-Christian-Science-Monitor.

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