12/10/2021

The Why Of Vocal Fry

12:02 minutes

head-on photo of a bumpy bullfrog with its mouth open, clearly mid-croak
Credit: Shutterstock

For decades, vocal fry lived a relatively quiet existence. A creaky or breathy sound that occurs when your voice drops to its lowest register, this phenomenon was long known to linguists, speech pathologists, and voice coaches—but everyday people didn’t pay much attention to it.

Then in 2011, people started noticing it everywhere. So, what happened? What’s going on in our vocal chords when we fry? And why does it bother so many people so very much?

Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the history of vocal fry, and looks at languages where fry is a feature, not a bug.


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Segment Guests

Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

Lisa Davidson

Lisa Davidson is Professor and Chair of Linguistics at New York University.

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know, when you work in radio, you get a lot of comments about your voice. It sort of comes with the territory. Every now and then, someone says to me, you know who you really sound like? Alan Alda. I get that all the time. And you know what? I will take it. But once in a while, when the speaking voice is that of a woman, the comments have a different tenor to them. Usually, they have to do with something called “vocal fry.” Someone who gets these kinds of comments a lot is Johanna Mayer, host of our podcast Science Diction. Hey, Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: OK, vocal fry, what exactly is it?

JOHANNA MAYER: It’s when your voice drops down into a lower register, and it takes on almost a creaky quality, kind of like this. And a lot of people really, really do not like it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I hear lots of people speaking with vocal fry, but it’s never really bothered me.

JOHANNA MAYER: Well, that’s the thing. It’s not like vocal fry is anything new. Linguists have been studying it for decades. But it’s really just in the past few years that everyday people have started paying attention to it and hating on it. So when I started getting all of these emails and angry tweets about my voice, it got me thinking, where did this fixation on vocal fry come from? And also, is there anything maybe good about it?

IRA FLATOW: Which brings us to your story.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JOHANNA MAYER: Before the last decade, vocal fry lived a relatively quiet existence. It was known to linguists, speech, and language specialists, maybe the occasional vocal coach, but it really didn’t get much public attention. I mean, it was around. The Kardashians were a few seasons deep, Britney was post-Circus, Kesha had just done her Get Sleazy worldwide tour.

But then, in 2011, a study came out. A team of linguists at Long Island University looked at 34 college students, all of them women, and found that about 2/3 of them used vocal fry. And I don’t know exactly what it was about this study, because it wasn’t like there hadn’t been studies on vocal fry before. Maybe it was just timing, that it was giving a name to this thing that people had suddenly started noticing. But something about this study struck a chord.

SPEAKER 1: It’s something called vocal fry that is creeping into the speech patterns of young women. NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman is here to explain. Explain away, because I’ve never heard of this.

NANCY SNYDERMAN: Well, it’s a new term, man. And a lot of people I think probably haven’t heard about it. But–

JOHANNA MAYER: At the time of this Today Show episode, vocal fry was still a pretty obscure term. But that was about to change. Have you ever looked at a FedEx truck and noticed how the blank spaces between the E and the X make a little arrow? After I noticed that for the first time, I could not unsee it. That’s what this newfound fascination with vocal fry was like. It had existed in plain sight for years, and people just hadn’t really noticed it. But once they did, they realized they hated it.

SPEAKER 2: It’s girls who talk like that and adopt that. But it’s not their fault.

SPEAKER 3: You mean like, grown women, they talk that–

SPEAKER 2: Grown women, and they’re victimized. They have fallen prey to something. [LAUGHTER]

SPEAKER 4: It’s annoying. I mean, it’s really “annoy-iiiing.”

SPEAKER 5: So it’s talking really high. And then it’s also the affectation, which is the “fryyyy” and “I’m talk-iiiing.”

[LAUGHTER]

JOHANNA MAYER: The general consensus was that vocal fry was a trendy thing, that young women were basically just trying to sound like Britney Spears and Kesha. And then, in 2015, there was an episode of Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS: Let’s get to the glottal fry, also known as the vocal fry. Demonstrate it for us.

SUSAN SANKIN: It’s when you’re kind of down here. Typically, it occurs at the end of a sentence when you’re finishing what you’re saying.

JOHANNA MAYER: Terry Gross is interviewing Susan Sankin, a speech and language pathologist. And they’re talking about all the different issues she helps her clients address. The pathologist is clearly not a fan of the fry and how it makes women sound. But she actually takes it a step further.

SUSAN SANKIN: And what they don’t realize is how harmful it could be to your vocal cords. You’re really fatiguing and straining them. You’re putting them in an unusual position. And it’ll be interesting to see in the near future, how many of these women end up in ENT offices with vocal pathology.

JOHANNA MAYER: So vocal fry, not just annoying, not just sabotaging your career, it’s actually doing you physical harm.

LISA DAVIDSON: And that’s when the linguists all got involved.

JOHANNA MAYER: Lisa Davidson is the chair of the Linguistics Department at NYU.

LISA DAVIDSON: And, in fact, that’s when I joined Twitter, because I wrote a letter to Fresh Air at the time. And yeah, that’s when I decided it was probably a smart time for me to join social media.

JOHANNA MAYER: In her letter, Lisa argues that vocal fry is actually not a problem at all. And that this pathologist and other people who hate it, they’re just intolerant of how young women speak and actually pretty ill-informed about the basics of fry. So let’s clarify that. What is it? Like, what’s happening in my throat when I use vocal fry, also known as creaky voice?

LISA DAVIDSON: The vocal folds are vibrating much more slowly. They’re vibrating more irregularly and somewhat more loosely.

JOHANNA MAYER: Sometimes this just happens when you’re running out of air.

LISA DAVIDSON: So a lot of times where we find creaky voice, especially in a language like English, is at the end of a sentence.

JOHANNA MAYER: Now, as to the allegation that it’s damaging the vocal chords, well, it’s pretty interesting considering all the languages that actually use vocal fry.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

In many Southeast Asian languages and Indigenous languages in Central America, vocal fry isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. In some languages, just adding a tiny bit of fry changes the actual meaning of a word. Or languages like Cantonese, where the pitch of a word changes its meaning, vocal fry can help speakers reach those lower tones. And it can help listeners understand which tone is being used. It just makes it a little more distinctive.

But what about in English? When linguists first described it in English, it wasn’t about women at all. It was about men. In fact, according to a linguist in the ’60s, it was something that upper-class British men, did presumably to convey their superior social standing. And judging solely by this one clip of Benedict Cumberbatch, this is still very much a thing.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: Got a brother who’s worried about you, but you won’t go to him for help because you didn’t approve of him, possibly because he’s an alcoholic, more likely because he recently walked out on his wife. And I know that your therapist thinks your limp’s psychosomatic, quite correctly, I’m afraid.

JOHANNA MAYER: I mean, that was basically one long, confident croak. And in the UK, historically, at least, it seems vocal fry wasn’t happening nearly as much in women. In the ’80s, one survey found that it was as much as 10 times more common in men, and again, specifically upper-class types. And yet, note the curious lack of public outrage or fretting over whether Benedict Cumberbatch could secure any more acting work, afflicted as he is with the voice of a fancy frog.

In the US, there’s evidence that young women use vocal fry more than men, at least among college students in the small studies that have been done. And as we know, people are very much complaining about it. So maybe it’s how North America and women are using fry that’s getting people worked up. In English, vocal fry obviously doesn’t change the actual meaning of a word the way it can in other languages. But it might convey other meanings, subtler ones.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

There’s some research on this, and none of it is conclusive. Some studies suggest that women use vocal fry when talking about emotional topics. Others say it’s a thing we do when we’re bored or even when we’re trying to project authority. So why do people hate it? Maybe they hate when women sound emotional, bored, or authoritative. That’s one theory.

But here’s the simpler one, sexism. When we criticize the way someone’s voice sounds, not what they’re actually saying, it’s because on some level, we just don’t like who they are– their age, their class their race, their gender. To me, criticizing vocal fry just feels like making fun of someone’s accent, like a cheap shot. When we say, I can’t tolerate the sound of her vocal fry, it sounds to me like what we’re really saying is, I can’t tolerate the sound of a young woman talking on the radio.

But you might want to get used to it. Because how women talk, it tends to catch on.

LISA DAVIDSON: Many years of sociolinguistic research has shown that just about every change that you see in language is found first in women, often young women.

JOHANNA MAYER: This is widely accepted among linguists and sociologists. When it comes to speech and language, young women tend to be ahead of the curve. And that’s been true for centuries. In the early 2000s, two linguists looked at thousands of letters from the early modern period and found that women were way more likely than men to mix things up with new linguistic forms, like dropping the “ye.” Women started using “you” earlier than men. And “hath,” women switched to the modern “has” earlier too.

If there’s one rule of language, It’s that it changes. And if there’s another rule of language, it’s that some people get very annoyed when it does. So what to do? Do I get a voice coach? Do we hire Benedict Cumberbatch to croak on my behalf? Do the listeners who don’t like my voice just turn it off?

I’d like to propose another solution. Look inward. Why is it that a simple creak in my voice sounds immature, stupid, grating, or like, quote, “a spoiled teen?” Why is how I say it more important than what I say? And if your answer is, well, look, I like women and I don’t want to find this annoying, but I just truly, genuinely do, I’d like to prescribe this solution, exposure.

Because there’s nothing inherently wrong or annoying about fry. If there was, much of Denmark would have to collectively turn off their ears. Yes, creaky voice is a feature of Danish. Like most things in life, we get used to them with exposure.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So if you’re looking to solve this problem, here’s my offer. Just listen. Listen to the radio. Listen to podcasts, to audiobooks, to Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian and women on the radio. Listen to your niece, your brother, your boss. Listen to yourself. And listen to voices like mine. Because in time, I think you’ll start to hear us a little differently. And you might even like what we have to say.

IRA FLATOW: That piece was produced by Kevin McLean, Johanna Mayer, and Elah Feder. And you can hear more stories like this on our podcast Science Diction. Thank you Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Thank you, Ira.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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