Vocal Fry: The Latest Threat to the English Language

Teenagers, specifically those of the female variation, have found another way to inject into the language a poisonous linguistic trend, bringing English ever closer to a slow and painful death. Since integrating the word “like” into the language as a placeholder while you stumble over your words (the effect they intended, no doubt) wasn’t enough for these diabolical adolescents, they had to go on and introduce into their language-destroying concoction something viler than a mere word. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, their assiduously outlined plan now includes not a word but a tone that will be the ultimate downfall of English language as we know it. To many, this is merely a linguistic fad. But to ignore the spread of the trend would be like watching passively the progression of a malignant tumor over the tough, leathery skin of America (the injuries from which they originated sustained by the country’s incessant fight for freedom, and against terrorism, of course).

To answer your question, yes, I am thinking what you are thinking: we must not sit idly by as the young people of this country attempt to bury the language with which this great nation was born, a symbol of profound tradition and proud heritage, in ignorant idiocy. We must protect the integrity of our great language, for it is the language of utmost importance in all the world. What such stewards of this nation’s great legacy would we be if we didn’t uphold the linguistic standards of our forefathers? Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm, and keep your speech well above your lowest registers; this we must do to combat the evil that is vocal fry.

Vocal fry, you may be wondering, what kind of sinister travesty of our great language is that? Simply put, vocal fry, also known as glottalization (which is, surprisingly, a thing), is the dipping down of the voice into its lowest registers, creating a creaking sound. Vocal fry, or the croaky voice, as I like to call it, generally finds its way into the end of a sentence as a speaker draws out the tail of the last word. Many people, especially, it would seem, those of older generations, find it extremely grating and annoying. Contrariwise, many youngsters seem to quite like it: a 2010 survey revealed that of its small sample population the college-aged Americans perceived the croaky voice as “educated, urban-oriented, and upwardly mobile.” Which, of course, is just plain wrong–don’t these kids know that vocal fry makes you virtually unhirable?

Indeed, according to Business Insider, vocal fry has the potential to seriously hurt one’s job prospects. They say that those in the position of job-granting authority prefer the voice of one to be of the “normal” cadence for his or her gender. To exemplify their point, they cite an article which says that women prefer men with deeper pitched voices and men prefer women with higher pitched voices. Now, you may not think that there be anything odd or strange about this. You may think these preferences simply reflect the relative cultural tastes of our time. You may think–but you’d be wrong.

Rather, it has everything to do with how sexually attractive we find somebody. That’s right, apparently the decision of the boss-man on whom to hire is partially predicated on how risqué he finds the applicant’s voice; and thus the applicant him, or her, self. The ears are particularly erect, however, if the applicant is a her. As a matter of fact, females are viewed more negatively than men for having the croaky voice–especially by other women. When a boss-lady is ruminating over a hiring decision the judgment is harsher, as women regard other women’s unsexy deviation from the mean far worse than would a man listening to the same voice.

Taking it one step further, this Washington Post entry points to newly furnished scientific evidence which proves–absolutely, proves–that vocal frying women are deemed to be “less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hireable,” and therefore less likely to get hired. Which serves them right, those young women, for being the instigators of the whole affair! Why should employers have to tolerate women who model their voices after people like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears? Especially since everybody knows vapidity is contagious, and the manner in which you speak is a more direct reflection of your abilities than are your qualifications and demonstrated intelligence. And to those who say that’s sexist: how else are we going to effectively discriminate against well qualified job applicants for subjective, arbitrary reasons?

Which is why I am proud to say that the researchers that conducted this study said, with the confidence of science undoubtedly permeating their non-glottal voices: “Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman.” This, brothers and sisters, means that even science says that women should regulate their voices to fit within the vocal range society deems fit. This, my fellow Americans, is a victory.

But as all victories go, especially those of linguistic justice, there are naysayers attempting to rob the moment of its glory. Such depraved negativity is never so annoying than when the opposition is a linguist herself. Nothing is worse than when a voice such as this rises in opposition, because it tends to be controlled by an educated mind, which threatens our willful ignorance. Therefore, of this sort of thing, we must weary, lest we fall into trap of thinking within the proper, non-biased context.

Undermining our efforts to reinforce gender specific prejudices is Amy, author of blog The Fourth Floor and a trained linguist; and she says that there are some things wrong with the aforementioned study by which science sanctioned our righteous indignation. For instance:

My problem . . . is with the stimuli; the vocal fry is everywhere, even in the “normal” recordings.

At the moment upon reading this I began to laugh in my booming, non-creaking man-voice: how could it be the case that there is vocal fry in virtually every stimuli, a fact which would undermine the implications of the study supposed by the aforementioned Washington Post article? To think that popular media would misinterpret a scientific study’s results in order to fit its position within that of its readership, regardless of accuracy, is a bit of an overstatement, wouldn’t you agree?

Besides, it’s not as if you can listen to the stimuli yourself and hear the glottalization described by the many derisive articles in every single recording (save that of Audio S20). That would imply that the study failed to paint an accurate illustration of how the croaky voice tends to be used in everyday speech by having their speakers unnaturally force the croaky voice from, presumably parched, throats. (Dry mouths produce the best creaky floorboard sounds, I’m told.) You may be curious as to why the researchers wouldn’t simply use the natural frying voices of the speakers since the youngsters are doing it so much already, as this probably would have the most natural depiction of the croaky voices of the speakers whose voices were used, rather than having them all artificially belt it out like a baritone toad. The problem with that is that the scientific method has this pesky requirement for a control group, in order to minimize confounding variables, thereby ensuring the results are useful and, you know, scientific. In the case of this study, the researchers decided that in order to get a good baseline they’d make everyone imitate a cotton ball-mouthed teenager who’d just been woken up from a nap in English class by a sour faced teacher ranting about the terrible grammar of the current generation.

And of course no one in their right mind would hire that kind of person. Which is why it is strange the many news outlets covering this topic seem to suggest that young interviewees purposefully employ the croaky voice in conversations with potential future employers, as is done in the study. Perhaps such a notion is too counterintuitive to too many in order to make a quick, sensationalized read of a news story, but contrary to what many reporters have implied, many linguists consider vocal fry to be a marker of advanced, sophisticated social interaction, specifically amongst females, who are blamed (or hailed, depending on your perspective) for starting the linguistic trend, yet who tend to be a half a generation ahead of men in regards to linguistic innovation.

Indeed, the croaky voice is colloquially normal. It more often than not sneaks its way past our consciousness and into the end of our sentences, even in formal settings (which happen to include interviews, incidentally), by way of our typical physiological limits. Even in more formal settings we often don’t breathe well enough to support the full length of sentences, thus often inducing the hated croaky voice on the last one or two syllable, like a door annoyingly does when you’re trying stealthily to latch it shut at night. What you are doing at that time is beyond me, but it’s okay, you don’t have to explain yourself. I don’t judge.

And neither should you.

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