What does "vocal fry" mean?

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Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, "LOL Vocal Fry Rules U R All Dumb", Jezebel 7/30/2015:

This week, in shit-hot stuff happening on the internet, once-great feminist pundit Naomi Wolf wrote a column about how vocal fry is Keeping Women Down, and then other women across the internet rebutted her, rightly positing that when your dads bitch about the way you talk it's because they're just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads. […]

Vocal fry, as interpreted via California's finest Calabasians, is a weapon of the young, disaffected woman, not a way to connote that they don't care about anything, per se—just that specifically, they do not care about you. It is the speaking equivalent of "you ain't shit," an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It's a protective force between the pejorative You—dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment—and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y'all didn't fix it when you had the goddamn chance. It's a way of communicating to you "We have this handled," and also "Get off my dick." It's a proscenium of absolute dismissal and it is one of the most beautiful mannerisms millennials possess.

[Oddly, given Ms. Shepherd's anti-"dad" animus, in my experience it's mostly been "moms" (that is, older women) who complain about young women's use of fry or creak.]

There are lots of ideas out there about what vocal fry "means", or rather, what people convey by using it. It's been identified as a "city girl squawk" associated with upper-middle-class New Yorkers; as an imitation of California Valley Girl style; as a vocal pathology; as a consequence of aging; as an attempt to sound serious by using a low pitch; as an attempt to sound sexy; and now as a way to convey interpersonal indifference.

There are several quite different physical speech characteristics lumped together under the careless pop usage of the term "vocal fry", so it's possible that these radically different interpretations actually attach to different physical phenomena. But I think this is mostly just the normal mutability of meaning.

What someone "means" by dressing in a certain way doesn't depend on the intrinsic interpretation of their clothing as a collection of physical objects, even though there's a certain amount more-or-less natural symbolism involved. The interpretation of clothes depends on layers of marketing and indexicality and irony, with different observers and different contexts producing very different results.

The interpretation of speech mannerisms — the way we dress our words — is less dependent on organized market forces. There's no linguistic fashion week where speech designers show off their latest creations to buyers. But in other respects, the interpretation of ways of talking has all the same complexities as the interpretation of ways of dressing.

Previous LLOG posts on vocal creak/fry:

"The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO", 3/22/2006
"Further thoughts on 'The Affect'", 3/22/2006
"Vocal fry: 'creeping in' or 'still here'?", 12/12/2011
"More on 'vocal fry'", 12/18/2011
"Sexy baby vocal virus", 8/15/2013
"Biology, sex, culture, and pitch", 8/16/2013
"Restless creak", 2/3/2014
"New vocal fry culprit", 6/18/2014
"Vocal fry probably doesn't harm your career prospects", 6/7/2014
"Real fry", 6/19/2014
"Freedom fries", 2/3/2015
"You want fries with that?", 2/3/2015
"Sarah Koenig", 2/5/2015
"Vocal creak and fry, exemplified", 2/7/2015
"Effects of vocal fry on pitch perception", 3/5/2015
"Male vocal fry", 7/23/2015
"Pinker peace creak", 7/24/2015
"More Pinker peace creak", 7/25/2015
"And we have a winner…", 7/27/2015
"The great creak-off of 1969", 7/28/2015

 

 



16 Comments

  1. Peter Erwin said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    There's no linguistic fashion week where speech designers show off their latest creations to buyers.

    There was a charming sketch in the short-lived "Saturday Night Fry" radio program about voice and accent as the radio equivalent of costume, with the host (Stephen Fry/Emma Thompson) and the visiting "expert" (Jim Broadbent) trying on different combinations:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElHi9lg4adg

  2. richardelguru said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    What does "vocal fry" even mean?

    FTFY (the topic seemed to be crying out for that edit) :-)

  3. Jon Forrest said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 9:32 am

    There is a style of talking often used by TV/radio people in which the speaker tries to sound authoritative by using a fake overly deep voice. Ted Knight on the Mary Tyler Moore show did this, and it isn't hard to find other examples.

    I've always thought that vocal fry is just what happens when a female tries to emulate this. Female vocal cords (generally) don't produce these frequencies well, and the result is vocal fry.

  4. Guy said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    I appreciate the way you've made use of ambiguity to select a title that adresses both the question of what the term "vocal fry" is being used to refer to as well as the question of what is "meant" when vocal fry is used.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

    Jonathan Forrest: Then what causes vocal fry in men?. More to your point, I hear it often from women who seem to be speaking naturally at the pitch range that's comfortable for them.

    I don't think Julianne Escobedo Sheperd thinks "proscenium" means what I think it means.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

    Re the word "Calabasian[s]," here's a magazine piece from a year ago claiming it had just then been coined, with Kylie Jenner as the Ur-Calabasian: http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/08/v-coined-calabasian-to-describe-kylie-jenner.html. My own second-hand stereotypes of the various subparts of the San Fernando Valley and environs (gleaned from people who'd grown up in the area back in the '70's and '80's) are apparently woefully out of date, because I had not even known that the Kardashian clan resided in Calabasas, much less that they had become prototypical instances of what people from Calabasas are like.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    Apologies to Jon, not Jonathan, Forrest for my slip of the brain in regard to his name.

  8. Jon Forrest said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

    As we said in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up (Taft High `71`), you can call me anything you want, just don't call me late for dinner.

  9. Steve T said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

    "The interpretation of clothes depends on layers of marketing and indexicality and irony, with different observers and different contexts producing very different results."
    At a Halloween party, most of the clothing is indexical and possibly ironic.

  10. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 8:22 pm

    Naomi Wolf is not your dad.
    I am your dad. Fuck you, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd.

  11. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 8:27 pm

    See, this is about right:

    "It is the speaking equivalent of "you ain't shit," … It's a proscenium of absolute dismissal and it is one of the most beautiful mannerisms millennials possess."

    SO, if you want to communicate to your prospective employer, your senior colleague, your boyfriend's parents, your professor or thesis advisor, your next-door neighbor, a potential landlord, that they ain't shit, then fry, fry away. They'll get it. Oh, will they get it.

  12. pj said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 4:56 am

    @Peter Erwin: That was charming. Thank you for the link.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    My students' clothing is surprisingly ironic. If pressed, some of them might admit that their mothers are providing the irony.

  14. Bloix said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 11:15 am

    A parting thought:
    If you are a billionaire celebrity who is famous because of a sex tape and an ass big enough to balance a champagne glass on, then you can get away with talking like this. Otherwise, no.
    Now get off my fucking lawn.

  15. Craig S said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    Jerry Friedman, not all men necessarily have vocal cords that can naturally pull off the deep, stentorian tones of a "newscaster" voice either. (I definitely can't, for whatever that fact is worth.)

    I don't entirely agree with Jon Forrest's theory, given that the active identification of "vocal fry" as a linguistic trend worthy of discussion is far too recent when compared to the longstanding history of women needing to defeminize some aspects of their voices if they wanted to be taken seriously by the culture at large, but the ability to detect vocal fry in the speech of some men doesn't inherently disprove it.

  16. KevinM said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 11:47 am

    "Calabasian" is a term that should be squashed.

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