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When young women find their 'creaky' voice

The speech phenomenon known as “vocal fry” annoys some curmudgeons but may also demonstrate how young women are the innovators in our language.

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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 Ms. Deschanel, Ms. Kardashian, and Ms. 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.

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