Welcome to my blog, Beyond the Fourth Floor. The purpose of this blog is to describe linguistic phenomena and linguistic studies from the point of view of a linguist (rather than a journalist) for the purpose of making it accessible to a popular audience. For more information about the blog, please see the “About” page.
I was unsure where to start this blog, as there are many fascinating topics with which to start. However, because I am new to this, I thought I’d start on a topic with which I am intimately familiar: vocal fry.
What is vocal fry?
Vocal fry has been described by journalists as being a “guttural vibration,” a “raspy or croaking sound” or “creaky.” Vocal fry is a voicing of our words that is different from what we typically think of as normal voicing, where the vocal folds flap more irregularly, resulting in a more ragged-sounding voicing. Perhaps the most helpful thing for understanding what vocal fry is would be to simply hear it for yourself. Here is a simple example from a Youtube user. You can ignore the symbols on the screen; just listen to the sound.
Vocal fry in the media
I chose the example above because it was the simplest example of vocal fry I could find, but also because it is one of the few that don’t explicitly denigrate it. Linguists believe that there is nothing inherently good or inherently bad (or in this case, inherently “annoying”) about any given linguistic phenomenon. However, many people who are not linguists have very strong feelings about many facets of language — particularly if those facets are new, and especially if they are thought to be used mostly by young women — and vocal fry is certainly one of them.
However, as in so many other aspects of science, those who talk the loudest (or get the most hits) about a subject are frequently wrong. It’s not just bad for linguists, who love all of language, but it can be bad for everyday speakers of language.
Case in point: this article, where an employer writes that an otherwise perfectly-qualified woman was turned down for a job he was offering because of her vocal fry “problem”. Check out the picture to capture the general tone of the article.
When professional journalists write articles with this type of vitriol about vocal fry, it is of course no surprise that the rest of us might post unkind tweets about it.
(My personal favorite is that vocal fry “sounds like an exhausted British person who smokes too much.”)
Why does the media representation of vocal fry matter?
When speakers and listeners engage in a conversation, they are not merely exchanging the information in the words they say. They exchange information about their identity, whether they intend to or not. Because of the information being spread by the media about vocal fry, and the information being spread in social media, a picture of the type of person who uses vocal fry emerges. When people like the author of the Fast Company article above present vocal fry as a feature used by gum-popping teenage girls, readers of that article may think of the feature as such. Even if the user of the feature is a mature woman with a lot of experience in her field.
Another problem is that many of these associations are straight-up wrong. Most speakers use vocal fry in their speech, of any gender and any age. The physics of speaking are such that vocal fry is a natural way to end a sentence. Listen closely to the people around you; chances are, they use vocal fry at least a little bit. It is true that it’s a bit harder to hear in men, but I promise you, they’re using it too.