Thursday, January 19, 2017

Vocal Fry

For a couple of years now I've noticed a strange phenomenon when certain people speak, especially on radio or TV. There seems to be a creakiness or scratchiness in their voice especially toward the ends of sentences. I wonder if any of you have also noticed this?

Let me say how annoying I find it. When it occurs I find myself listening for this grating vocal mannerism when, instead, I should be focussing on what the voice is saying. 

Late last year when I was reading Ian McEwan's Nutshell I came to the point in the story when the heroic fetus meets the expectant father's girlfriend (you just have to read this book) 

I like the sound of her voice, the human approximation, I would say, of the oboe, slightly cracked, with a quack on the vowels. And towards the end of her phrases, she speaks through a gargling, growling sound that American linguists have dubbed "vocal fry". Spreading through the Western world, much discussed on the radio, of unknown aetiology, signifying, it's thought, sophistication, found mostly in young, educated women. A pleasing puzzle. With such a voice she might hold her own against my mother.

"YES!" I shouted, "There's a name for it!"

Apparently, while I haven't been paying attention vocal fry has been tossed about as a "thing" since 2011, so I'm late to the party. There are YouTube videos to show you what I'm talking about if you don't already know. this scratchy creaky vocal foible seems to be most common among young women and seems to have followed the equally annoying Valley Girl speech pattern of always finishing a sentence with a question mark. I used to think that people spoke in this growly way out of weariness or illness, some sort of breathing difficulty, but it seems to have more to do with wanting to sound knowledgeable or to convey a laid-back attitude, a certain degree of sophistication. 

Oh...and by the way, it's not just women. Some men are also employing this self-conceit in the way they talk, only, since their voices are already often quite gravelly, vocal fry may not be as easily noticed. They also do not seem to follow the female pattern of vocal fry mainly at the ends of sentences but use it throughout. Noah Chomsky is one person in particular who has this propensity. I have heard male experts employing it on the radio and I'm sure I have noticed it in MY OWN FAMILY!! Gaaaah! 

Don't bother watching the entire boring video that follows, just get a sense of Chomsky's speech.

In order to turn your voice from its everyday normal or modal register into one that is slightly lower, i.e. into vocal fry, you must employ your belly muscles to squeeze air through your larynx, which forces the folds in the larynx much wider apart than normal. Ultimately this unnatural frequent spreading of the vocal chords will lead to damage: lesions, polyps or cysts. Do you want this to happen? No, I thought not! This is a learned pattern of speech. Just unlearn it.