What do we hate when we say we hate vocal fry? Exploring covert sexism

(This first appeared in Babel Magazine, November 2018)

A podcast has been exploring forms of linguistic discrimination. Carrie Gillon, co-host of the Vocal Fries Podcast, investigates the real problem with women’s voices.


Nearly every day, I encounter someone complaining about or mocking women who use vocal fry. As a podcaster and linguist, I am concerned with the policing of women’s voices (and others’ voices as well—language policing can target nearly any identity you can think of, including race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, etc.). I focus here on the policing of vocal fry, because it is the most common form of sexist language policing in English—at least in my experience—and it is also a relatively new target for linguistic discrimination.

What is linguistic discrimination?

Linguistic discrimination is form of bigotry where we judge others for the way/language/dialect that they speak. Sexist examples of it include complaints about vocal fry, uptalk, or the use of the word “like” (sometimes all three at the same time!). It is really a proxy for more overt forms of bigotry. People who feel that it is unacceptable to say overtly bigoted things will feel completely comfortable policing other people’s speech. In fact, many of those who would be horrified to say or hear overtly racist things still judge different varieties of English associated with particular racialized communities. For example, while outright racist language is (mostly) frowned upon, it is still socially acceptable to mock certain features of African American English. Linguistic discrimination is the safer way to be racist or sexist or classist (etc.), because it’s often not even recognized as such. It may not be recognizable by everyone that linguistic discrimination is bigotry, but it’s just a more gentile form of bigotry.

Linguistic discrimination might be the hardest type of bigotry to fight, because we’ve all been taught that it’s ok to judge language as “good” or “bad” (especially in school). However, the truth is all varieties of language are neutral—it’s only the content of our speech that can have moral valence.

What is vocal fry?

Vocal fry has many names, including creak, creaky voice, laryngealization, and glottal fry, among others. It is a type of phonation, which is a fancy way of saying “a way of manipulating the vocal cords”. Modal voice is the most neutral way of using our vocal cords, but we can also whisper, or speak in a falsetto voice (like the Bee Gees), or use breathy voice (exactly what it sounds like), or use vocal fry/creak. Vocal fry results from us slackening our vocal cords, which creates a lower register, sometimes by many octaves. This slackening also creates an irregular creak in our voice. My two favourite examples of fryers are Benedict Cumberbatch and Jeff Bridges. Try listening to them with your eyes closed—you can really hear them creak.

Vocal fry in English is mostly used phrase-finally—that is, at the end of sentences, or at the end of longer phrases. For example, in the sentence “I washed the car”, the vowel in “car” is the most likely to be fried. More rarely, it is used on all vowels in a sentence—which makes it easier to perceive (and therefore to mock).

How was vocal fry perceived in the past?

Until relatively recently, vocal fry/creak was associated mainly with British men. The oldest known reference to creak in English is John Firth, in 1937. He described creak as being associated with certain social types and attitudes (without describing which ones, though it is likely he meant men of a higher social status). Later, in 1964, David Crystal and Randolph Quirk claimed that British men used creak as a marker of superior social class. In 1989, creak was still associated with men: Dwight Bolinger described it as a “macho style”, which was sometimes adopted (by men) to convey authority.

One of the most famous examples of vocal fry from the 1930s is actually from a woman: Mae West. No one at the time seemed to think anything was wrong with her voice, and if anything, she was perceived to be a sexy, confident woman.

How is vocal fry perceived now?

Vocal fry is perceived as either a sign of insecurity or a sign of authoritativeness, depending on the person listening. An article in Business Insider claimed that vocal fry makes you sound inexperienced and/or silly. Rindy Anderson, William Mayew, and Mohan Venkatchalam, in an article published in PLOS One, argued that vocal fry makes women seem “less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, and ultimately less hirable.” However, this perception depends on (minimally) age. In 2015, Penny Eckert told This American Life about a preliminary study she performed testing attitudes towards vocal fry. She had found that people under 40 found vocal fry authoritative, while people over 40 didn’t. (I am on the cusp of this division, as someone who would have been under 40 at the time she conducted her study. Vocal fry doesn’t bother me in the least, though I am unsure if I perceive it as more or less authoritative.) Ikuko Patricia Yuasa also told Time Magazine in 2014 that vocal fry might also be associated with how men speak, and authoritativeness.

Examples of people complaining about vocal fry

Vocal fry was not really discussed much in the media until 2011. Outside of linguistics, you can find examples of speech pathologists talking about it as harmful to the vocal cords (which is probably only true if you use it while singing), but it’s barely mentioned by non-specialists. It’s not until vocal fry becomes associated with young women that the media starts to care—and complaints about it start to show up.

The earliest example I could find of the media discussing vocal fry was in 2009. However, in this case, it was about trans women’s voices. Jim Dawson of the MinnPost wrote, “Over six months, a team of researchers slowed [a trans woman’s] speaking down, lessened her ‘vocal fry’ – a growling sound men often make as they drop their pitch at the end of a sentence – and worked on Ms. J’s patterns of marking stress.” Note that men are still the ones associated with vocal fry at this point, and trans women were being told to stop using it because it was seen as too masculine. (Women being told not to use vocal fry because men use it, then being told not to use it because women use it only 2 years later is, frankly, infuriating.)

Everything changed in 2011, when Lesley Wolk, Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, and Dianne Slavin’s (2012) study of vocal fry was promoted to the media. This study found that, of 34 college-aged women at one American university, more than 2/3rds used vocal fry. That’s it. That’s all they found. They didn’t test men (or non-binary people, but studying non-binary people was basically non-existent at the time). They didn’t test older women (to see if using vocal fry was actually new). So what is the most we can say? Some young American women use vocal fry. Yet it was interpreted to mean that only women, and specifically only young women, use vocal fry.

This study is patient zero for a lot of sexist nonsense that follows. To be clear, the study did not promulgate this sexist nonsense, but the researchers did make a choice to publish the data from only one gender. (Media reports at the time mention that they had data showing that men don’t use it, but their later study in 2014 only showed that their male subjects used it less than the female subjects did, not that they didn’t use it at all.) Almost immediately, people began attacking women for using vocal fry. The first instance I could find was of a woman using the name “Abby Normal” complaining about it on YouTube in 2011. Abby calls it “vocal fry tones”, and uses vocal fry, nasality, dentalized /s/ (aka “lisping”), and vowel lengthening to mock young women who use vocal fry. (I also detect a pseudo-Northeastern accent, à la Thurston Howell, III, but it’s unclear if anyone else would associate that accent with vocal fry.)

Mistaken for Vocal Fry

People mistakenly lump vocal fry and a bunch of other features together and think that those things together are vocal fry.

Features that often mistakenly get lumped together with fry:

  • vowel lengthening
  • nasality
  • “lisping”/dentalized /s/
  • uptalk
  • “like”

Abby uses vocal fry while complaining about it (when she is no longer “putting it on”). (As we’ll see, nearly everyone—perhaps even everyone—who complains about vocal fry uses it.) My favourite bit is when Abby states it “irritates the living crap out of me”, while intensely frying. It’s not even hypocritical, however, since she likely has no idea she’s doing it. She also claims (without evidence) that vocal fry is bad for “vocal health”. (Another element that keeps popping up.)

Vocal Health?

No one has yet shown that vocal fry is bad for the vocal cords (outside of singing), but people like to point to it as a reason to hate on vocal fry. However, this is just an excuse. It’s cover for the real reason people complain about vocal fry: sexism. No one ever cared if men hurt their vocal cords.

The fact that it is sexist to complain about women using vocal fry is further highlighted by the top comment on Abby Normal’s video: “I used to call this the ‘twat growl’. I didn’t know it actually had a name.”

By early 2012, media outlets had started joining in. People interviewed by Kristin Tillotson of the Star Tribune compared vocal fry to “laziness” and “a vocal shrug of the shoulders”. John Carney of CNBC argued that vocal fry was not new, but only noted that older women used it (not noticing that men use it too). He also found other ways to be sexist about it, by comparing it to uptalk (another feature incorrectly associated with women). “It’s a way of presenting seriousness, intelligence, and determination without sacrificing femininity. Also, it’s much, much preferable to making every sentence sound like a question.” (It’s a wonder he didn’t also bring up “like”.)

My absolute favourite of the early attacks comes from Craig Chappelow of Fast Company. He suggested that vocal fry makes women sound “immature, unconfident, and, frankly, annoying.” (Recall that vocal fry was originally associated with macho men, so this is both fascinating and frustrating.) He also tells a story about not hiring a woman because she had vocal fry. Later, he says,

This isn’t a new trend. I have heard it among school-age girls for years. (Maybe I just haven’t, like, been paying attention since my house is occupied by three, like, teenage boys and I have, like, my own speech pattern issues to deal with.) It’s just the first time I have seen it cost someone a job. [emphasis added]

Craig originally admitted he passed on her as a job candidate, but here he makes it seem as though her not getting the job was inevitable. Way to shirk responsibility, my dude.

There were, and still are, media outlets that report vocal fry straightforwardly, but the fact that (young) women are still the ones associated with vocal fry means that sexism is very easy to add to any story about it.

Who uses vocal fry?

Most English speakers—at least in the UK, North America and Australia—use vocal fry/creak to a greater or lesser amount. It is also used in other languages as a distinctive feature, creating new words. (Jalapa Mazatec, a language spoken in Mexico, for example, distinguishes between the word for ‘holiday’ and ‘dirty’ by the presence or absence of creaky voice.)

Nearly everyone who complains about vocal fry uses it. There are many examples of people using vocal fry while complaining about it; for example, Abby Normal (as discussed above) and Bob Garfield, formerly of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast (as Megan Figueroa, my co-host pointed out on our podcast). Other people who write about how horrible vocal fry is also use it. One notable example is Naomi Wolf, who wrote an op-ed about the horrors of vocal fry for The Guardian. She uses vocal fry extensively, which you can hear if you watch any video of her.

There are many other famous examples of vocal fry: Ira Glass (which he addressed in the episode of This American Life mentioned above), Bill Clinton, Jeff Bridges, Benedict Cumberbatch, and, yes, the Kardashians. But it is not simply about a particular gender or age range.

Many singers use vocal fry to hit lower notes. Tim Storm holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for “Lowest vocal note by a male” because of his use of vocal fry. Metal singers use it extensively, as did Johnny Cash, and Right Said Fred, as I recently (inadvertently) discovered.

Why do people use vocal fry?

Normally, language features that are found in only some varieties of a language are used to show in-group status. For example, Canadians use Canadian Raising (as in the vowels in “out and about”) as a marker of Canadian identity, as opposed to American. However, since most English speakers use vocal fry, it’s probably more accurate to say using it more than others shows in-group status. Using it phrase-finally, like nearly everyone does, is probably only used to signal to the listener that the sentence is coming to an end. Using it more extensively may signal in-group status with other extensive users of fry. (An in-group that consists of both the Kardashians and Ira Glass.)

Why is hating vocal fry sexist?

Vocal fry is unfairly associated with women. Women might use it more than men, but men who use it never get called out for it. (Exception: gay men report being called out for using vocal fry, but this is likely because gay men are perceived as being “too feminine”. We feel comfortable policing men who do not conform to our ideas about masculinity.) We nearly always only notice vocal fry in women. (Generally speaking; I actually hear it much more in men—they can get super growly in a way most women can’t.) We police women more heavily than we police men. (Exceptions abound, but men are not policed for being men. Women are policed for being women.) Since we (almost always) only notice fry in women, we only punish women for it. This means that we don’t give jobs to women because they use a feature of speech that everyone uses.

Hating vocal fry is an indirect way of expressing our sexism and our displeasure with femininity or things we associate with women. Notice that a lot of the complaints are about how “silly” and “frivolous” women sound.

Complaining about vocal fry is a sneaky way of being sexist.

What can I do to stop hating vocal fry?

Record yourself. Listen very carefully. Are you frying? (Probably.) Listen to powerful men. Do they fry? (Usually.) Catch yourself and ask yourself if you would really judge a woman with vocal fry if she were a man. Vocal fry is a neutral feature that we ascribe certain values to. Try to decouple whatever sexist nonsense has been applied to vocal fry from the actual vocal fry. Learn to accept that people have different ways of speaking, which are all acceptable. There are features of language that I personally dislike, but I never comment on them because I know it’s just my own particularity. Consider that you might dislike something because of bigotry. If you don’t want to be bigoted, then you’ll have to uproot this sneakier form of bigotry within yourself.

Learn to love the variety in language, within English and in other languages as well. All ways of speaking are valuable, and disliking a feature of a language (or an entire language or dialect) does not make you interesting or unusual. It’s just covert sexism (or racism, or classism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or xenophobia, or…) and you aren’t tricking me.

Carrie Gillon is the co-founder of Quick Brown Fox Consulting, which provides writing support and coaching for graduate students and other academic professionals, and the co-host of the Vocal Fries Podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination. She is the co-author of Nominal Contact in Michif (2018; with Nicole Rosen), and the

(co-)author of numerous articles on the syntax and semantics of (mainly) indigenous languages of North America.

Find out more

Creaky voice in Jalapa Mazatec:

Silverman, Blankenship, Kirk & Ladefoged. 1995. Phonetic Structures in Jalapa Mazatec, Anthropological Linguistics, 37: 70-88.

Vocal fry in young people:

Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh & Slavin. 2012. Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers, Journal of Voice, 26, e111-e116.

Abdelli-Beruh, Wolk & Slavin. 2014. Prevalence of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Male American English Speakers, Journal of Voice, 28, 185-190.

Online

Listen to the first episode “Uppity Women” of the Vocal Fries Podcast at https://vocalfriespod.fireside.fm/1, read the Addendum for this episode (which goes into even more detail about the use of vocal fry/creak) at https://vocalfriespod.tumblr.com/post/162815002503/vocal-fry-addendum or https://vocalfriespod.wordpress.com/2018/08/15/episode-1-uppity-women-addendum/, and follow the Vocal Fries on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VocalFriesPod.

 

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