The truth is that everybody creaks. So why do we give young women such a hard time about it?

You might call it the Great Vocal Fry Dustup of 2015. The concept wasn’t exactly new: Media outlets from the New York Times and the Today Show to the Atlantic and Science had been churning out trend pieces about “vocal fry”—or “creaky voice,” a certain croaking or popping raspiness that had allegedly begun to creep into young women’s voices in emulation of stars like Kim Kardashian, Zooey Deschanel, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears—at least since 2011 (following a study published in the Journal of Voice). After the first breathless headlines (watch out—it’s an epidemic!) came successive waves of fact-checking and debate: Was the phenomenon really new? Was it really just women who were “guilty” of vocal fry, or did men do it too? What about old people? And was it bad for you, physically or emotionally?

 

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By the start of this year, despite nuanced commentaries on the topic from linguists, feminists, and cultural critics of all stripes, it was still the chorus of haters—those who claimed that vocal fry marked a lack of professionalism, betrayed a worrying lack of confidence, or was simply intolerable to listen to—that seemed the loudest and most persistent. Then, fittingly for an argument about voices, the fracas moved to the radio: In January, This American Life aired a segment on the topic in which Ira Glass quoted from a bevy of strongly worded complaints about the show’s female reporters’ use of vocal fry. He also interviewed Stanford linguist Penny Eckert, who confessed that she found the sound of vocal fry so grating she decided to conduct an informal poll of her students to see if they did too. What she discovered surprised her: While Eckert heard a reporter who creaked as sounding less authoritative than one who didn’t, her students perceived no such difference in authority. And she was able to duplicate those results in a larger study of 500 adults: Those over 40 were bugged by vocal fry, and those under 40 weren’t. Eckert concluded that it was she who was “behind the curve.” Or, in other words: Cringing inwardly when somebody talks is one thing, but making pronouncements about how other people should speak is another.

You might’ve thought Eckert’s experiment would have quieted the frenzy. Her message? Yep, language changes. Get over it.

But, of course, the Internet did no such thing. And then in June, NPR’s Fresh Air sparked another wave of squabbling when, on a show about the new documentary Do I Sound Gay?, host Terry Gross steered the conversation to vocal fry, which speech pathologist Susan Sankin implied was landing young women in doctors’ offices with damaged vocal folds. “I think if [vocal fry] is a repetitive habit that you use over a long term that the vocal cords will show some sort of fatigue,” she said. “There will be some sort of implication vocally.” In the same interview, Sankin also weighed in on other vocal traits she deemed undesirable, including her own New Jersey accent, which she said she’d worked hard to minimize.

Many linguists and speech pathologists who heard the interview were incensed and took to Facebook and Twitter to question both Sankin’s facts and her philosophy. Several also questioned Fresh Air’s choice of expert on the topic. Among the leaders of the charge was NYU linguistics professor Lisa Davidson, who expressed her dismay in an open letter to Terry Gross, writing, “As a linguist, I try to embrace changing language styles without being too judgmental or prescriptive. Rather than criticize younger speakers for deviating from the standards that are subjectively appealing to their forebears, we'll all be better off if we accept that language often changes as generations try to distinguish themselves from the one that came before.”

It worked: Fresh Air brought Sankin back on the show to revisit the topic, this time with Eckert, the Stanford linguist who’d previously appeared on This American Life, along to provide another perspective.

Meanwhile, think pieces proliferated. In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf urged twentysomething women—whom she called the most “empowered”—female generation in history, to drop the vocal adaptation that was “hobbling them,” while in New York magazine, Ann Friedman asked, “Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?”

After the waters finally calmed a bit (at least until next time), NYU Stories asked Davidson to help us understand what all the fuss is about. Why do some people get so, well, judgmental about the way other people speak?  

photo: portrait of Lisa Davidson

One explanation is that linguistic prejudice is one of the last “acceptable” prejudices out there, Davidson suggests. “If you’re, say, an upper-middle class educated person in the Northeast, you’d try not to say anything overtly racist or sexist—but you can say whatever you want about people’s accents and that’s totally fine.” As an example, she points to Gawker’s “ugliest accent tournament” from last year, which she interpreted as an outlet for people to disparage accents they associated with lower-class or uneducated people—without admitting that that’s what they were doing.

“If you ask people why they don’t like a certain accent, they’ll say, ‘well, I don’t like the way the vowels sound,’ or ‘I don’t like the intonation patterns’ or whatever. But really, if rich people talked that way, people wouldn’t have those opinions.”

Plus, cringing as laypeople confidently opine on various verbal phenomena about which they have no real expertise is just a part of daily life as a linguist. “Everybody talks, everybody has language,” Davidson says, “so everybody has an opinion.”

Below, we gave Davidson an opportunity to correct some widely believed myths about vocal fry—shaping up to be the literary bogeyman of the decade—as well as some commonly misreported ideas about how language works.

Myth 1: Vocal fry is “bad for you.” It can damage your vocal folds.
Linguists use the terms “creak” or “glottalization” to describe the sound that results when the vocal folds come together in an irregular way—an abrupt, incomplete closure, instead of a the usual smooth vibration as they reach together at the top and then slide down together at the bottom in a regular motion, Davidson explains. It’s a real phenomenon, and “it’s really easy to see,” she says, when you’re looking at the sound waves of speech. But the idea that using it too much damages the vocal folds? There’s little evidence to support it. In fact, Davidson says, creak is a linguistic feature of some languages—it contributes to the meaning of words. “You could have ma [without creak] versus ma [with creak] and those would mean two different things in a language. So to say that if you creak you’re causing damage to your vocal folds is just crazy—because then you’d have all the speakers of these languages walking around with vocal pathologies, and that just can’t be the case.”

As for why Sankin seemed so sure vocal fry was landing people in doctors offices? Davidson surmises that she may have been confusing correlation with causation: Some vocal-fold pathologies can lead to vocal fry—but that doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

Myth 2: Vocal fry is an affectation observed exclusively among young women.
Nope. Ann Heppermann, producer of Slate’s Culture Gabfest, put together a super-cut of creaky male voices called “The Vocal Fry Guys.” On This American Life, Ira Glass pointed out that his voice creaks on the show—dozens of times per episode. Clips of Noam Chomsky creaking all over the place have made the Internet rounds.

The fact is that pretty much everybody creaks, Davidson says. “In English we generally use it as an indication that we’re coming to the end of a sentence.”

Then why are young women the ones being criticized for it? Katie Mingle, radio producer of the 99% Invisible podcast leaked a saucy auto-response she’d composed to answer the never-ending stream of listener complaints about the voices of female reporters on the show, noting that they’d never received a single such message about a male reporter’s voice. Ditto for Ira Glass on This American Life.

Davidson suggests that there could be a scientific explanation for why vocal fry is perceived differently coming from a man than from a woman: A sudden decrease in pitch is part of creak’s characteristic sound. And because men’s voices are generally lower in pitch to begin with, that shift doesn’t come across as that extreme. Because women’s voices are higher, she says, “it’s really noticeable when a woman is changing from her normal voice to creaky voice, because of the pitch change.”

But as for why, for some people, “noticeable” equals “annoying” (or “painful” or “immature” or “unprofessional” or [insert commonly used negative adjective here])? It’s hard to imagine that there’s not at least some sexism at work there. “Why is it ‘annoying’? Because we like to find something that’s annoying about women,” Davidson suggests.

Myth 3: If young women want to be successful in the workplace, they will need to drop this annoying vocal fry thing and try to sound more confident.
“You know, it’s funny,” Davidson says. “I was just at a conference with a whole bunch of phoneticians who know a lot about this, and even some of them were saying, ‘Look, I know what this is, and I know it’s a part of language change, but I don’t like listening to it.’ Just like Penny Eckert, the linguist on This American Life said she didn’t like it. But it gave her so much credibility to be able to say, ‘Get over it, people!’”

The fact is, language changes all the time, and what to one generation can seem to herald the decline of civilization can quickly become mainstream in the next (see: “cool,” “like”). “We expect our children to dress differently than we do, and to have different hairstyles. We might decry it, sort of, but you know, fashion styles change. Why wouldn’t everything else change too? New words being added to the language is probably not that surprising to people—but it’s also true that we actually have a fair amount of control over our phonetic delivery. If it’s something you can control, of course young people are going to change it. It's just yet another way of making ourselves different than the generation that came before us.”

And if young women are driving a significant change (though that vocal fry is the brand-new epidemic many news outlets have made it out to be has remained stubbornly hard to prove scientifically), it wouldn’t be the first time. A University of Helsinki article cited by Gretchen McCulloch in the Quartz piece “Move over Shakespeare, teen girls are the real language disruptors” found that centuries ago, young women were the first to use phrases like “my eyes” instead of “mine eyes” and switch from “hath” to “has” and “maketh” to “makes.” And they’ve been leading the charge ever since.

So while Naomi Wolf and Faith Salie might urge young women to drop so-called “feminine” mannerisms like vocal fry to appear more competent in today’s workplace, it might be that women should simply stick to our guns and wait for the rest of the world to catch up. After all, nobody ever seems as interested in telling men how to speak. (It’s worth noting, too, that phonetician Christian DiCanio was able to poke substantial holes in the widely cited “Vocal fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market,” suggesting that “the better lesson that one might take home instead here is that one’s job prospects are harmed if you try to talk (or act) like someone who are you are not.”)

Or, as Davidson puts it, “Someday when my overlords are forty years younger than me, then they're all going to talk like that and I don't care.”

Myth 4: If you want to change or “fix” your speech, hire a fancy vocal coach.
One of the things that so irked linguists and speech pathologists about Sankin’s comments on Fresh Air was that she seemed to imply that there are right and wrong ways of talking—that you should work to ditch things like Jersey accents, vocal fry, and the high-frequency s of stereotypical gay speech if you want to get along in the world. This suggests that’s there’s only one “natural” or “standard” way of speaking—an idea that these researchers reject. In fact, though a speech language pathologist might help you learn to identify the different sounds that make up, say, a particular accent, and can teach you to speak differently in different situations, the goal, as held by American Speech–Language–Hearing Association guidelines, is never to eradicate a particular variety of speech.

That goes for the dreaded vocal fry, too: Like pronouncing tomato “tomahto,” it’s not a pathology to be “cured”—just a thing some people do.