There’s been a recent spike in online commentary on vocal fry from both journalists and the general public. The commentary is dominated by protests from exasperated listeners begging to see the end of what they call the ‘vocal fry epidemic’. Though brief and by no means comprehensive, I hope this post will add to others’ efforts to provide some balance to the conversation.
To linguists and speech scientists, vocal fry describes a type of voice quality that sounds ‘rough’ and low in pitch. We sometimes call it laryngealisation, glottal fry, creaky voice, or simply creak. To make it easier to collaborate across discipline boundaries, I tend to use the terms vocal fry and creaky voice interchangeably. If you hum the lowest note in your pitch range, and then try to hum even lower, you’ll likely produce it. It sounds crackly, poppy, and creaky (hence creaky voice).
Most people have the ability to produce vocal fry during speech. If I asked you to say “Katherine likes cheese” (it’s true, I do) in a whispered voice, you likely could. If I asked you to whisper only the last word, you’d be able to do that too. Now, if I asked you to say “Katherine likes cheese” in vocal fry, and you’d never heard of vocal fry, you mightn’t understand what I’m asking you to do. But after a quick explanation and perhaps a demonstration, you likely could say “Katherine likes cheese” in vocal fry – you could say just one, two, or all three words in vocal fry, you’d likely have that control. That’s because, just like whisper, vocal fry is a normal voice quality that we (voice scientists) expect all or certainly most people who have normal healthy voices to be able to produce.
In some languages1, creaky voice is phonemically contrastive. That means it has the power to change the meaning of a word. In English, this isn’t the case. However, English speakers do produce creaky voice, sometimes. This statement is not a controversial one; if your ears know what to listen for (and that may take practice), you’ll surely agree.
In public commentary, vocal fry is often positioned as a voice quality used (near-)exclusively by young American women. The myth that vocal fry is a voice quality used only by young American women is entirely incorrect; it has also been documented in the speech of young American males2, and in the speech of male and female speakers of different ages from the UK3 and New Zealand4. Anecdotally, it is readily observable in Australia too. The claim that vocal fry is becoming more ‘popular’ among young American women may well be true, but is at the present time not well-supported by evidence5. If young American women are using more vocal fry than previous generations, this is arguably unsurprising; spoken language changes, that’s reality, and young (female) speakers tend to lead linguistic change6.
Even though creaky voice doesn’t change the meaning of English words, there is evidence that listeners attribute some meaning to it7. Those pleading for women to stop using vocal fry often warn that using vocal fry damages their social and professional image. The research often cited to support this claim found that “young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable”8. However, this study’s methodology has received much criticism from the linguistics community (also see my own analysis). A separate study presents a different story: women who ‘creak’ are perceived as being “educated, informal, genuine, and nonaggressive”9. We cannot currently say how a speaker’s use of vocal fry will impact listeners’ attitudes towards them. There just isn’t enough research. There will also never be a simple answer; listeners’ attitudes towards speakers are always context-, listener-, and speaker- specific. And in any case, why should the responsibility to change be heaped on the shoulders of those who are judged, rather than those doing the judging?
Some commentators warn against the health risks of vocal fry. I am unaware of any evidence that the use of vocal fry precipitates voice pathology (remembering that correlation does not equal causation). Individualised advice to reduce the use of vocal fry for the sake of vocal health is sometimes valid. The physiological realities of vocal fry are not conducive, for example, to speaking loudly. So, if you need to speak loudly (if you’re teaching a large class, or calling out to your runaway dog), and you do not ‘intuitively’ reduce your use of vocal fry (as we would expect10), then explicit instruction to do so may prevent and/or reduce excessive laryngeal effort (muscular tension in and around your voice box) that can lead to voice problems. However, to give advice to all speakers to stop using vocal fry for the sake of their vocal health is as ridiculous as saying no one should ever take large steps when walking. Large steps are good for stepping over puddles. Small steps are good for uneven ground. In some speaking situations, vocal fry may be the more physiologically, linguistically, socially, or personally appropriate choice.
- Gordon, M., & Ladefoged, P. (2001). Phonation types: a cross-linguistic overview. Journal of Phonetics, 29(4), 383–406.
- Abdelli-Beruh, N. B., Wolk, L., & Slavin, D. (2014). Prevalence of vocal fry in young adult male American English speakers. Journal of Voice, 28(2), 185-190.
- Henton, C., & Bladon, A. (1988). Creak as a sociophonetic marker. In L. M. Hyman & C. N. Li (Eds.), Language, speech, and mind: studies in honour of Victoria A. Fromkin (pp. 3–29). London: Routledge.
- Szakay, A. (2012). Voice quality as a marker of ethnicity in New Zealand: From acoustics to perception. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 16(3), 382-397.
- Oliveira, G., Davidson, A., Holczer, R., Kaplan, S., & Paretzky, A. (2016). A comparison of the use of glottal fry in the spontaneous speech of young and middle-aged American women. Journal of Voice, 30(6), 684-687.
- Eckert, Penelope & Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. Cambridge: CUP.
- Podesva, R. J. (2013). Gender and the social meaning of non-modal phonation types. Proceedings of the 37th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 37(1), 427–448.
- Anderson, R. C., Klofstad, C. A., Mayew, W. J., & Venkatachalam, M. (2014). Vocal fry may undermine the success of young women in the labor market. PLoS One, 9(5), e97506.
- Yuasa, I. (2010). Creaky voice: A new feminine voice quality for young urban-oriented upwardly mobile American women? Am. Speech, 85(3), 315–337.
- Behrman, A., & Akhund, A. (2017). The effect of loud voice and clear speech on the use of vocal fry in women. Folia Phoniatr Logop, 68, 159–166.