LOS ANGELES -- Last week NPR's On the Media host, Bob Garfield, lamented a frightening tic invading American speech. It appears "almost exclusively among women, and young women at that." As these women form sentences, Garfield explains, "something happens to their voice, as if they have a catch in their throat." He summons his 11-year-old daughter Ida to the microphone to mimic the speech pattern. "Ida," he instructs her, "be obnoxious."
The affect of which Garfield speaks is known as "creaky voice" or "vocal fry," a gravelly lowering of the voice that conjures the sounds of "a door creaking or a hinge that needs oiling." Over the course of his 26-minute Slate Lexicon Valley podcast, Garfield describes the speech pattern as vulgar, repulsive, mindless, annoying. "I want the oil to stop frying," Garfield says. "I want someone to wave a magic wand over a significant portion of the American public" -- you know, women -- "and have the frying come to an end."
For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences. This "Valley Girl lift," as Hofstra fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich maligns it, "reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one's opinions and a radical uncertainty about one's place in the world." Raising our voices makes women sound like "an empty-headed clotheshorse for whom the mall represents the height of culture," she writes.
So we're wrong when we raise our voices, and we're wrong when we lower them.
Just as Valley Girls are perceived as overly feminine and submissive, Creaky Girls may be seen as overly masculine and derisive. Lexicon Valley co-host Mike Vuolo notes that a woman's voice is, on average, an octave higher than a man's. Lowering into a gravelly creak puts men and women on the same wavelength. "Vulgar!"
Of course, young women could work to flatten their speech patterns to conform to Garfield's own NPRish affectation, which one commenter describes as "Richard Pryor making fun of WASPs." So why do we instead insist on speaking in ways that older men find so objectionable? Vuolo valiantly meets Garfield's annoyance with some research into how the vocal creak actually functions among young women.
One study recorded a college-aged woman's voice while speaking in an even tone, and then again when employing the creak. When both samples were played for students in Berkeley and Iowa, those peers viewed the affectation as "a prestigious characteristic of contemporary female speech," characterizing the creaky woman as "professional," "urban," "looking for her career" and most tellingly: "not yet a professional, but on her way there."
"You mean there were positive associations among her demographic?" Garfield asks incredulously. "It's so repulsive, and yet it's deemed sophisticated by our next generation of leaders?"
That's right, Bob. And a 2011 Science investigation into vocal fry confirms that the vocal creak is not a universally reviled tic. Science cites a study conducted by speech scientist Nassima Abdelli-Beruh of Long Island University, who observed the creak in two-thirds of the college women she sampled. She also found that "young students tend to use it when they get together," with the speech pattern functioning as a "social link between members of a group." One of the most prominent vocal creakers of my generation, Britney Spears, actually digitally modifies her voice to creak more impressively when delivering lines like, "It's Britney, b -."
I suspect that the spread of "creaky voice" makes Garfield so mad because it represents the downfall of his own mode of communication, which is swiftly being replaced by the patterns and preferences of 11-year-old girls like Ida and her peers. As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behaviour in order to be heard. Our speech may not yet be considered professional, but it's on its way there.
Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science, and health. Tweet at her @amandahess.