What is Vocal Fry and Why Is It Common With Women?

by | March 8, 2016 |

I’m a fan of HGTV. One of the shows I like is Flip or Flop with telegenic husband-wife team Tarek and Christina El Moussa. Every time I hear Christina talk, I’m always struck by how often she uses the voice register known in the media as vocal fry/creaky voice. Vocal fry is common with women who speak in a lower register.

Here’s an example of her speech. Pay attention to the ends of her sentences where the low, scratchy sounds of vocal fry are most pronounced:

If you listened to the whole clip, you might have noticed low, scratchy sounds in the speech of the two young women co-hosts, again particularly at the ends of their sentences. It is very pronounced when one of them says, “Yeah.”

Linguists call this register creaky voice. It’s produced by closing the space between the arytenoid cartilages in the larynx.

vocal fry/creaky voice

Decades ago phonetician Peter Ladefoged identified a continuum of phonation types, depending on the degree of opening or closure of the arytenoid cartilages:

vocal fry/creaky voice

The History of Vocal Fry

Breathy voice brings to my mind Marilyn Monroe. As far as vocal fry goes, Ladefoged noted that some languages make contrasts in certain consonants between creaky and modal (normal) voicing, and these contrasts help make meaning contrasts. He says creaky voice consonants are common in Northwest American Indian languages, such as Kwakw’ala, Montana Salish, Hupa, and Kashaya Pomo.

Now to the contemporary American English phenomenon. Here vocal fry doesn’t make meaning contrasts, it makes social contrasts. Christina El Moussa is a thirty-something Southern California woman, and she is representative of the social group using the vocal fry/creaky voice feature as a marker of identity. I doubt she’s aware she’s doing it. But through this register, she is identifying herself with her generation of young, educated, upwardly-mobile women.

Vocal Fry in Pop Culture

About five years ago discussions of vocal fry/creaky voice burst into the media. In 2011 lots of commentary swirled around the speech patterns of young women such as Kesha, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Zooey Deschanel, the Kardashians, and even Meredith Grey the main character on Grey’s Anatomy, all of whom use various degrees of creaky voice.

Speculation was that these pop culture figures popularized this speech style, and I think this is highly possible. However, they didn’t create the style, because vocal fry/creaky voice has been in American speech for a long time, always more in the speech of women than men. You can hear it in Mae West’s famous “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” Here she is.

It’s also not just a feature of young women’s speech. Sociolinguist Norma Mendoza-Denton has identified creaky voice as a feature of hardcore Chicano gangster speech found in Southern California.

Vocal Fry Today

The style is alive and well. Last semester a young woman in one of my classes had a very pronounced creaky speaking style. When I pointed it out to her, she was surprised, because she’d never heard of it before. As a point of information, she’s from Texas.

Anything that is a marker of feminine (and/or ethnic) identity is going to come under scrutiny and, unfortunately, under attack. When discussion of vocal fry erupted five years ago much of it was about how it was annoying, irritating, and possibly an impediment to a woman’s career. One such critic was Howard Stern.

Much hay was made of the potential danger this speaking style posed to women’s larynxes and, indeed, the term fry does suggest something harmful. Therapies for the so-called condition have been proposed.

However, if languages around the world use creaky voice for various communicative purposes, then it seems unlikely to me this register is actively harmful. Furthermore, younger men aren’t criticized when they on occasion use the creaky register. Rather, the negative perception of it, along with the – in some cases, well meaning if misguided – attempts to eliminate it, smack of a move to control yet another part of a woman’s body, this time her delicate little arytenoid cartilages.

Women are criticized when their voices go into higher registers. They’re called shrill. Women are also criticized when their voices go into lower, vocal fry/creaky voice registers. They’re called irritating.

Hmmm…what’s going on? Could it be that some people don’t want to hear women’s voices at all?

Lucky Christina. Tarek listens to her.

2018 update: Oh, dang! Christina and Tarek have had a very public and very messy breakup. So much for good communication.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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