Here is a topic that is really interesteeaang. If speech intonation could reverberate in written media that last part would have sounded like a buzzing engine of some sort. Or like a croaking frog. Or like a hidden speech strategy that allows me to gloat standoffishly while you hopefully wait with exuberant anticipation for what I will say next. By letting my sentence fizzle out with a raspy hum I might signal that I’m a true authority on the subject matter. So much in fact that I won’t even bother to use my normal vocal range. And you hopefully will think I’m particularly persuasive because I seem to put so little effort into convincing you.
I’m talking about vocal fry. Men in authority positions have used this psychologically motivated speech pattern for eons, but it’s now creeping in with younger women. Vocal Fry is that guttural way of giving instant understated coolness to your statements. It’s the equivalent of delivering a potent punch line without getting caught laughing at your own jokes. It’s the ultimate fluff to top off a humble brag to make it sound blasé enough to be a sincere side remark, not of a feeble call for compliments. If Facebook statuses were audible they would probably give off enough creaky, buzzing white noise that it could put us to sleep.
How did it start? When I was a young Norwegian exchange student in New Jersey in the late 1980s I noticed how teenage girls would insert the word “like” into every sentence. None of my English teachers had taught me how selective use of the word ‘like’ was connected to peer status, a social rule alien me with the funny accent was exempted from. (Thank God!) Later, during the 1990s and ‘00s I remember watching American teen flicks and discovered that the “cool girls” had a penchant for ending their sentences like a question? So I was like, are you guys waiting for someone to confirm what you just said or something? Long into this phenomenon’s existence – and like, way too late for someone who makes her living studying, like, social trends and stuff /?/ I learned that this type of inflection was called the “valley girl accent”? And y’know, now all that seems to be changing and all? But what-evveaar! Low pitches are just so totally ra-a-ad!
Precisely because of its peculiar rise in popularity, vocal fry deserves to be understood in its full social context. Most noteworthy might be the changes in how young women view themselves and how they demonstrate that with their speech. While uptalk, hair twirling and a vocabulary so famished that it relies on excessive use of filler words tend to render a less than confident image of the speaker, the sociological forces behind vocal fry are the polar opposite. While the valley girl of the 1980s and ‘90s adopted a vocal pattern that automatically made her sound dumber, younger women today are trying to add clout to their statements by adopting a speech pattern that has traditionally been used by people in positions of authority. It is also worth noting that the fry did not emerge with bleach blond mall shoppers in California, but with the brainy and college-bound. A recent study estimated that around two-thirds of female college students creak. So in other words, young women are trading their open-ended sentences with a melody that demands a lower pitch, which might indicate an attempt at sounding more competent. Whether this is working or not it is indeed an interesting trend from a purely feminist standpoint. Or rather, interesteeaaang.
Linguist Patricia Keating of the University of California suggests that the vocal fry use is less ostensibly teenagey than we often perceive it to be, and that creaking at the end of a sentence is normal for many speakers. “There are languages that use creak as part of the phonemic system,” she says. She adds that the chances of it leading to vocal damage are very minimal.
Speech fads don’t typically change languages permanently, but they remind us that both syntax and speech patterns are in constant flux. Some of these changes have been introduced by new immigrants.The Chicano dialect in the American southwest comes to mind. Other changes are from subcultures of people who distinctly try to differentiate themselves from the mainstream – like young females competing for power in their peer groups. Both of these two forces change how generations talk, at least temporarily. English has a particularly rich vocabulary and advanced grammar, so it seems to depend less on phonetic cues and glottalizations to convey meaning. Maybe English then is more open for vocal experimentation than other languages? Since American pop-culture impacts globally, kids in other countries tend to pick it up as well. The use of vocal fry gets really interesting when mixed up with far-away dialects that have traditionally used the fry by default. So when a kid uses it to be part of a new “haute lingo”, consciously or not, might they mistakenly be associated with regions that use fry in their dialect? And likewise, will some far-away regional dialects suddenly be ‘in’? The potential for misunderstandings is plenty, and I assume this is good material for comedians. At least until a new generation comes along and introduces a new speech fad.
So when will vocal fry die out? When will starting a sentence with ‘Like’ no longer be edgy, but old hat? When will creaking be associated with phoniness? And when will the post-Millennials start mocking Millennial antics and speech patterns? (Oh wait, they already are!) And foremost, what will be the next official language of YouTube? This development could be very interesteeaaang.