It’s called “vocal fry,” and once you’ve heard it, you’ll start noticing it everywhere.
Also known as “creaky voice,” vocal fry refers to the low, guttural vibrations that sometimes occur in speech, often appearing at the end of sentences. (Here’s an example.) It’s the lowest of three so-called vocal registers, the other two being falsetto at the high end, and modal, which is the normal speaking register. As one linguist put it, vocal fry has been commonly identified in speech “since forever” (in some languages, it’s a legitimate part of the phonemic system), but now some studies hint that it’s particularly popular among young American women of a certain type.
Singers like Britney Spears slip into vocal fry when hitting low notes or for sultry effect, noted Science NOW’s Marissa Fessenden, characterizing the creak as a “language fad.” Kim Kardashian is guilty of it. So is Zooey Deschanel. And a small new study in the Journal of Voice suggests that it may be common in young female college students, or at least the ones the researchers studied.
Led by speech pathologist Lesley Wolk, researchers at Long Island University (LIU) recruited 34 female students and had them participate in a sentence-reading task. They analyzed the women’s speech based on their pitch, as well as the “jitter” and “shimmer” of their voice — changes in pitch and volume, respectively. Overall, two-thirds of the women used creaky voice, the authors found, particularly at the end of sentences, where it can be used as a sort of linguistic marker.
Notably, the study did not analyze any male counterparts for comparison, but citing forthcoming data from the LIU researchers, Science NOW’s Fessenden reported that they will be the first to document that creaking is a girl thing:
The group is also the first to verify that American women are much more likely to exhibit the behavior than men, as its yet-unpublished data show that male college-age students don’t use the creaky voice. The team’s next steps will attempt to find out when this habit started — and if it is indeed a budding trend.
Actually, the LIU group is one step behind language guru Ikuko Patricia Yuasa at the University of Iowa, who published a study in the journal American Speech last fall looking at the use of creaky voice in American women. Yuasa found that American females used creaky voice more often than American males and Japanese females. She also found that people tend to associate the female creak with being educated, urban-oriented and upwardly mobile.
For the study, Yuasa recorded conversations about food among male and females, a topic judged to be interesting but not likely to make people emotional (which is usually true outside of Hell’s Kitchen). She then analyzed random snippets of the recordings for creaky voice, finding that on average 12.5% of the words spoken by American females contained creaks, compared with 6.9% of those uttered by Japanese females and 5.6% of those by American males.
Despite its seeming prevalence in women, creaky voice has historically been associated with men — and authority. That seems intuitive, in fact, since a rumbling voice typically connotes masculinity. Yuasa cites past studies that have linked creaky voice to men and higher status; some researchers in the 1980s even deemed it “hyper-masculine” and a “robust marker of male speech.”
Perhaps that same semblance of authority can explain why young, college-bound women seem to be employing the creak. Yuasa posited that it could be a way to compete with men by taking advantage of the attributes associated with a lower-pitched voice. “Creaky voice may provide a growing number of American women with a way to project an image of accomplishment,” Yuasa wrote in her 2010 study, “while retaining female desirability.”