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.