Dr Cate Madill explores the speech phenomenon becoming increasingly common with young women in Australia, the UK and US.
Much has been written about vocal fry in recent years, with the focus on what it is, where it comes from and what it means. For those who don’t know, the term refers to the lowest vocal register, where the vocal cords are tightly closed for a very long time in the vibration pattern, resulting in a low pitched, creaky voice.
Some of the most recent commentary has focused on how women who use vocal fry are perceived, with detractors and champions, researchers and social commentators weighing in on what is a growing phenomenon.
So why is vocal fry, a commonly occurring phenomenon across all speakers, becoming the focus of commentary and criticism of young women in Australia, the UK and the US?
What is vocal fry?
Vocal, or glottal, fry is a description of voice quality (not pitch or loudness). It is also called glottalisation, and is considered a normally occurring feature in many tonal languages, such as Vietnamese, Wu Chinese and Burmese.
It occurs in everyone (men and women) at some time, usually momentarily, and most commonly when we wake up in the morning, before we are fully conscious; when we are tired or de-energised; at the end of phrases, specifically on the last word or syllable; and when we are stressed or anxious.
Vocal fry is perceived as “creaky” or “croaky” and low-pitched as it is the result of very slow and somewhat uneven vibration of the true vocal cords.
It is caused by a more flaccid, thicker vocal cord movement and the recruitment of the false vocal cords (the muscles that sit above the vocal cords that we use to hold our breath and cough).
This type of vocal cord vibration results in increased collision force of the true vocal folds (remember the true vocal folds are the only muscles in the body that hit each other).
This increase in force during vibration of the vocal folds can be traumatic and cause injury to the vocal folds if it occurs a lot – injuries such as laryngitis, vocal fold swelling, and vocal nodules, to name just a few.
Vocal fry is a commonly occurring symptom of a voice disorder (when it is present in a person’s voice a lot of the time).
So, fry occurs normally in many languages, cultures and contexts. It is a descriptor of the lowest part of the vocal range, a symptom of a voice disorder, and currently, a cultural phenomenon related to gender, age and geography.
But what does it mean and what attributions do people make when they hear it?
The meaning or attribution given to voice quality has been investigated in many studies – the most rigorous research was conducted by Jeffry Pittam and Cindy Gallois in Queensland in the 1980s.
They found that people attribute meaning to the sound of the voice, specifically: solidarity (is this person like me or like-able; are they one of my tribe?) or status (are they more or less powerful than me).
In my (unpublished) PhD, undertaken at the University of Sydney, women with croaky voices were perceived as being more neurotic than men with croaky voices. Women who had clear voices were perceived as being less neurotic than men with clear voices.
That suggests croakiness in women’s voices has a stronger effect in attribution of neuroticism by others than men, and that voice quality is judged more in women than men.
This parallels the findings in other research that women are judged on their physical attributes more than men.
Traditionally, older people are attributed more power than younger people and men are attributed more power than women.
A lower pitch is perceived almost universally as the speaker (male or female) having more authority and/ or greater status. We know that the average pitch of women in Australia has dropped since the 1950s.
This fact coincides with a greater participation in the workforce and overall empowerment of women in modern societies in the same timeframe. It also coincides with the empowerment of the younger generation relative to the older generation.
It has been reported that vocal fry as a vocal phenomenon is occurring more frequently in young women (in their 20s and 30s) in the US, the UK and Australia.
Anecdotally, it is also being observed by speech pathologists more commonly in young women in Brazil, but is not reported as a phenomenon in Europe.
There are three likely hypothesis for the increase in vocal fry in young women in modern, western society:
1) A lower pitch is a sign of empowerment, and we know young women are generically feeling more empowered in these societies; therefore, they may be unconsciously signalling this empowerment by lowering the pitch.
The only problem is that when women are in their twenties and thirties, their pitch is still relatively high due to the anatomy and physiology of the voice (pitch naturally lowers in women over time due to changes in cartilage, muscle tone and hormones).
Vocal fry has the effect of perceptually lowering pitch, even though it is not clear sounding. Thus, young women may be unconsciously signalling their own sense of personal power using this voice quality.
Unfortunately though, we know that both male and female listeners will perceive women more negatively if they use a hoarse, rough, creaky tone. Also, continued use of vocal fry is more likely to lead to a voice problem in women that can limit communicative effectiveness and reduced vocal capability.
2) The second possible hypothesis relates to the solidarity attribution we have observed in previous voice research. A person’s accent and/ or native language identifies them as being part of a common tribe.
We all know of the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously mimic a communication partner’s physical movements, accent or verbal style as a means of improving the effectiveness and sense of ease of communication.
Voice quality can also be an identifier of tribal belonging. Vocal fry is a distinct, easily identified vocal feature (unlike many other less obvious features of resonance or vocal clarity) and may be used as an identifier of a gender generation – young women living in a democracy who may have a similar value system and sense of belonging in that tribe.
3) A less likely hypothesis is that the cause of vocal fry is the opposite to empowerment – it is a sign of anxiety and stress. The voice box responds to the “fight and flight” response (in which anxiety is only the continuum) by tightening (holding the breath) in preparation to stabilise the thoracic region to provide greater strength to the limbs for fleeing or fighting.
As women participate more in verbal–based activities, and as their profile rises in the media, we are hearing women’s “voices” more and more. We may be hearing the sound of women under pressure.
This is a less likely hypothesis given the prevalence of vocal fry in social communication settings, where it likely that young women feel more at ease with each other.
In any case, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s fine to fry if you’re:
1) A man
2) An older woman
3) A person in a position of status, e.g. a news reader
Let’s compare the fry of the last two prime ministers.
Comment on Julia Gillard’s voice was common when she was the prime minister, yet she used fry at the end of her phrases in her maiden speech in Parliament without any ensuing commentary on her voice.
Interestingly, there was no comment on Tony Abbott’s fry before or while he was prime minister.
We also have to ask ourselves who is doing the criticising? I’m yet to hear young women criticise themselves for using it; in fact, it seems they don’t notice or comment that they are using it.
Vocal fry may be the new voice for young upwardly mobile American women. So who has the problem? Clearly not the young, empowered women in question.
It’s hard not to conclude that all this commentary about vocal fry is not actually about the voice, but about power and status, and who is allowed to have it.
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