I've got it. Add it on to the other speech patterns I've been criticized for, including: baby talk when I'm asking for a favor—I know it's the worst—and saying the words "you know" when I'm stalling a story to think about what I'm going to say next. But forget it, I've got "creaky voice," so you probably won't want to hear the thing I'm going to say anyway. (Look out! Falling piano!)
"Creaky voice" or "vocal fry" is the new way young women talk, according to linguistic research, and people really hate it. It's been described as a "raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence," and the sound of "oil popping on the pan" and also sheer agony.
To listen to an example of "creaky voice" skip to minute 4:35 of Slate's recent podcast on the topic, below.Then skip to 4:55 where it's described by host Bob Garfield as "annoying...really annoying." Learn to love it, people. Researchers at Long Island University found that two thirds of college-aged women were likely to make creaky vocal sounds when they spoke. It's specifically attributed to upwardly mobile, educated, urban-dwelling young American women. The "fry" itself is a "prestigious characteristic of contemporary female speech," according to findings by sociolinguist Barry Pennock-Speck in a 2005 study.
Despite the flack we've been getting for our newfound speech patterns, we've also received our share of sympathy.
"If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it's immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid," Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, California told the New York Times. "The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships."
If you've ever been mocked for using the word "like" or for providing an answer that sounded more like a question, you're probably the proud owner of a speech power tool. Studies suggest both of those affections are just part of our toolbox, used to deliver messages all their own. That sweet and cuddly non-confrontational answer posed as a question, for example, was proven to be an effective method of manipulation, according to one University of Pennsylvania study.
It's not surprising that women have developed an instinct to communicate with more than just language. We're used to people's attention drifting from our words to our "body language." Maybe we've just adapted to sending multiple signals to keep people focused.
But what kind of signal are we sending with a low smoker's grumble punctuating our sentences? The pervasive theory is that "creaky voice" signals sophistication and authority by way of imitation. "It's a masculinizing of the higher pitched female voice," explains Garfield. We may be trying to sound more like men, according to the Slate report, because we're working with them more than ever. And in the workplace, the male voice traditionally got more respect than the female one.
I like this particular theory, mostly because it means we can say to all the male creaky-haters: "I learned it by watching you!" It also suggests we're adapting physiologically to workplace dynamics—that's, like, step three in world domination.
Do I want a "vocal creak"? No. If I hear someone else vocally rumble, will it slightly annoy me now that I'm listening for it? Quite possibly. But I'm a little more disturbed by all the complaints. First our speech wasn't manly enough, now it's too manly? We can't win. If insecurity did play a role in our constantly reinvented vocal ticks, could you blame us? People seem to have a really hard time listening when we speak. Talk about annoying.