Researchers at the CW Post Campus of Long Island University have discovered an interesting trend in the speech patterns of young college women who speak American English.
Called “vocal fry,” it occurs when a person inserts a low, creaky vibration into their speech when they talk.
What is vocal fry?
The research team, made up of Professors Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, Lesley Wolk, Dianne Slavin and graduate student Laura Glass, recorded speech from 34 women ages 18-25. More than two-thirds of them used the popcorn-like sound or creak when they spoke, particularly at the end of their sentences.
“It sounds like rattled, popping air,” said speech scientist Dr Abdelli-Beruh.
Commonly heard in the singing voices of pop stars such as Ke$ha and Britney Spears, the researchers say that vocal fry, once regarded as a speech disorder in the field of speech language pathology, could be a way for a person to distinguish themselves from other people.
“It’s so obvious and unnatural, using vocal fry is bound to catch attention,” said Dr Abdelli-Beruh. The researchers also found that a speaker using vocal fry usually does it at the end of a sentence. “It could be that the speaker is trying to mark a syntactic boundary, indicating that they are finished speaking,” she said. The findings were published in The Journal of Voice on December 15, 2011.
Vocal fry could be something that is done subconsciously, but Dr Adbelli-Beruh thinks it also is a way for women to fit in with one another, comparing the phenomenon to her teenage son who recently changed his wardrobe to align himself with a group of friends from his new high school.
“Vocal fry is something we are all capable of doing and can choose to use intermittently,” Dr Abdelli-Beruh said. “While many tend to use it for pragmatic or linguistic purposes, there is definitely a prevalence when you consider the rate of young college female students using it on a regular basis on the CW Post Campus.”
While men and women are both able to use vocal fry, a study done by the CW Post team found that males usually don’t. The exception is found in some dialects of British English where the male usage is more common. Dr Abdelli-Beruh says this could indicate that the speech pattern is a gender marker.
Although vocal fry might be a growing trend, it’s been around for quite some time. In 1966 and 1968, speech scientist Dr Harry Hollien and his colleagues urged that vocal fry be recognized as the lowest of the three normal vocal registers, along with the high-pitched falsetto and modal, which is a characteristic of a normal speaking voice.
Although vocal fry is an unusual use of voice and occurs intermittently, it is entirely possible that the use of vocal fry could cause long-term damage to vocal cords. This has yet to be determined however, and will require further long-term study, suggest Drs Wolk and Slavin.
On a personal level, Dr Abdelli-Beruh says she’s not a fan of the newest speech social trend. “I don’t think it’s appealing or attractive.”