When young women find their 'creaky' voice
By Ruth Walker
Published: Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Analysis: Steelers could fill needs with free agents while not spending big bucks
- Steelers to release LaMarr Woodley; Taylor restructures contract
- Crosby lifts Penguins over Capitals in last game of road trip
- Stage volunteer dies following collapse at Pine-Richland High School
- Top pitching prospect Taillon’s time with Pirates must wait a bit
- Penguins notebook: Heralded Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov debuts with Capitals
- Marcellus shale driller Noble Energy Inc. sinks roots into Pittsburgh
- Hempfield couple charged in thefts
- Pirates notebook: Martin finding power stroke
- ACC Tournament manages to deliver an inherent history lesson
- Missing hikers found in McConnells Mill State Park