WASHINGTON, November 14, 2012 – Have you noticed a kind of low, guttural edginess in some female voices? It’s particularly noticeable among young girls and women. But you also hear it in the media, particularly in the female voiceovers (and sing-overs) in commercials aimed primarily at women.
This speech affectation is also showing up with irritating regularity in vocals by an increasing number of female pop artists like Britney Spears, who, according to an article in Science, “slip vocal fry into their music as a way to reach low notes and add style.”
The article notes that “Now, a new study of young women in New York state shows that the same guttural vibration—once considered a speech disorder—has become a language fad.”
The sound this article is attempting to render in words is actually hard to describe without using a lot of technical verbiage; although, to paraphrase the Supreme Court on an entirely different issue, you’ll know it when you hear it.
For example, here’s how Wikipedia, friend of plain language advocates, defines vocal fry: “The vocal fry register (also known as pulse register, laryngealisation, pulse phonation, creak, glottal fry, glottal rattle, glottal scrape or strohbass), is the lowest vocal register and is produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.”
Perfectly clear, right? Okay, so it’s hard to visualize. (Or “audio-lize?”) Which is probably why people who coach other people’s voices for a living use so many metaphors to describe this growing affectation.
Moving right along, let’s experience some examples now so we’re all on the same metaphorical page.
The sound of vocal frying
Vocal fry is pretty irritating once you detect it, and as we’ve already mentioned, you’ll likely know it when you hear it.
Here’s a clip of Kim Kardashian, who’s notorious for indulging in it.
(To my editor: I know you’ve declared this Community a Kardashian-Free Zone, but give me a break. This clip lasts only 19 seconds.)
If you’re running ads on this page, just scroll down a bit to find the video and enjoy. Or not.
If you’re still not hearing it, let’s make it easier: listen to the first 25 seconds of this 60-Second Mind podcast from Scientific American. You’ll hear examples of three different voices using vocal fry within the first 25 seconds. (Irony alert: You’ll actually hear the female narrator unconsciously indulging in vocal fry herself!)
Top-level professionals don’t use vocal fry, do they?
Unfortunately, some do, and it’s truly grating. Here’s an extreme example: a TV interview of Jill Abramson by Jim Lehrer after she was named executive editor at the New York Times. According to an article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta, “Changing Times: Jill Abramson takes charge of the Gray Lady,” Abramson’s “way of elongating words and drawing out the last word of each sentence is a subject of endless conversation and expert mimicry.”
We start this video example in medias res, as Jim Lehrer poses a question to Abramson on what her new job means to her. Listen to the first one or two minutes of this clip, or more if you can deal with it—the whole clip is close to eight minutes long. In the process, even Lehrer seems to pick up the highly contagious fry virus en route:
Fortunately, I don’t have to listen to Abramson all day long, and if I actually worked for her I’d likely arrange for a permanent assignment overseas. Doesn’t she know how to turn it off?
That’s the point for the rest of us. If you’ve got it, can you hear it? And if you hear it, can you control it?
More to fry than meets the eye (or ear)
If you speak with vocal fry, that’s fine as long as it’s not all the time. A distinctive sound that occurs at the bottom of your vocal range, vocal fry can actually be interesting in small doses. But it becomes annoying when overused.
Individuals who use vocal fry to any extent need to be able to turn it on and off, just like uptalk. You don’t want to accidentally pick up a single trendy habit when you’re a kid and then croak your way through the rest of your life, or until you notice you’re no longer getting promoted (above exception duly noted).
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as correct vocal fry. (Mae West knew how to do it.) It’s also got a long and much-discussed history that we’ll leave that to the dissertation writers. But that’s not what we’re about here. It’s habitual over-use in the wrong context that we’re concerned about, particularly among young women who want to begin their ascent in the corporate hierarchy.
How to tell if you’re frying your cords
First, you’ll need to learn how to create the vocal fry sound consciously. Richard Callahan, in an article titled “Improve the Sound of Your Voice,” suggests that you start by saying “aaaahhhh,” and letting your pitch go to the bottom of its range. Repeat several times, and notice the grinding sound that comes out at the end. That’s vocal fry.
Callahan suggests that you next read aloud into a recording device for five to ten minutes. However, some people produce vocal fry only in conversation, not when they’re reading aloud, so this might not always work as planned. (Excessive vocal fry is, after all, a habit acquired from social interaction.)
Perhaps a better way to self-diagnose vocal fry is to record yourself having an animated conversation or perhaps just your side of a friendly phone call. To improve the accuracy of your sampling, you could even leave your recorder by the phone for a few days, turning it on only when you start to talk. (But be careful not to violate any local laws on recording phone conversations!) Then listen to the playback. You may hate the sound of your own voice. Most people do, but for now, just listen for raspy or creaking sounds.
You may hear them in one or more ways. They’ll likely show up when your voice is pitched lower than usual, and you may hear them as part of elongated vowels within words, vowels at the ends of words, and in voiced consonants.
A voiced consonant is pronounced using the larynx, which creates a vibration you can feel. You can learn the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants quickly by placing your fingers gently on your throat and saying “ssss” (unvoiced) and then “zzzz” (voiced).
Vocal fry also shows up at the ends of phrases and sentences. But regardless of where vocal fry shows up, what happens is that the speaker makes certain vocal sounds last a little bit longer and go a little bit lower, often without even knowing it. Occasionally, you might even use up most your air before you finish talking, though you might not notice that either because you’ll automatically grab more. All of this sound-making activity occurs in less than tenths of seconds, which makes it easy for fryees to notice but hard for fryers to correct.
So for now, just figure out if you have vocal fry. Next time we’ll address how to use it when you want to, and not when you don’t.
Meanwhile, let’s conclude with this lighthearted but excellent video that pinches in on the problem of vocal fry by first describing in plain English and then providing examples of its use in every day speech. Video blogger “Abbynormal.one” also adds in some “uptalk” (our previous topic) just to make things fun while amping up the irritation factor.
Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at Amazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn.
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