Vocal Fry on This American Life

logo-v5This American Life is one of the podcasts I download every week, and I was excited when they started talking about vocal fry on this week’s episode. (I’ve talked about vocal fry recently in a post on stigmatized speech behaviour in the English classroom, and lots of interesting linguists have written about it in various places, including on the Language Log.)

I was a bit nervous, though, too, because mainstream media tend to pathologize vocal fry, portraying it as an epidemic that’s ruining the speech of the youngsters. Really, it’s just the newest point of criticism in the long tradition of loading stigma onto the speech of young people, especially women.

Thankfully, at the end of the 8-minute piece, the conclusions they reached were the following:

  • Vocal fry exists in the speech of lots of people. Your problem with vocal fry is less linguistic and more a problem with young women and their voice in society in general.
  • If it bothers you, it means that you’re out of touch with the features of speech of younger people; in other words, you’re probably old.
  • And if you don’t like it, well, there’s nothing you can do but get over it!

8 thoughts on “Vocal Fry on This American Life

  1. I had never heard of ‘vocal fry’ before this post. Then I read your linked post and the link in it and still didn’t really know what it was until I found a video online of a girl doing it. Ahhh, it must be where Jimmy Fallon’s teenage girl EWW skit comes from! I feel so out of touch…. Haha.

  2. I’m a 36 year old speech-language pathologist. I was disappointed with the This American Life piece about vocal fry because what it failed to mention is the frequency with which vocal fry is used among young women (and men) as compared to the frequency with which it’s used in the general population. Yes, vocal fry is an absolutely normal part of speech. The way that young people are using it exceeds what is typical. This marks a cultural-linguistic shift and it’s perpetuated by unconscious emulation. In addition, it’s very, very easy to change. One of the reporters said that this is just how her voice sounds and there’s nothing she can do about it. This is inherently untrue. If you increase both awareness and breath support, vocal fry will vanish instantly. Gravel be gone! Let it be known that young speech-language pathologists do it too. I will admit that it drives me nuts. I’m not even that old. And I know I need to get over it because frying isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I’m not sexist. I’m not a self-hating woman who makes a habit of criticizing other women. It’s just really, really annoying. And I would absolutely love to sit down with the young This American Life reporters and help them adjust how they use their voices (which are their instruments and their livelihood) so that their voices are easier on the ears of their listeners. Do you think Ira Glass will be on board? 🙂

    • OK, I see what you’re saying. But there’s nothing inherently WRONG with vocal fry. It may be more prevalent among younger women (and men); it may be annoying to you or others; it may be easy to change. But…WHY change it? It’s just the way that young(er) women and men talk now. It doesn’t hurt anyone and it doesn’t hurt your voice. I think people should just get used to it and move on. Language changes over time; it always has, and always will.


      • Actually, it DOES hurt your voice, according to speech therapy professionals. Not only is it annoying, it makes the speaker sound uneducated.

    • I’m 33 and vocal fry has bothered me for years, the recent discussions of it have simply served to give it a name for me. I certainly want young women’s voices heard, including my own. It bothers me when men do it too, I do notice it in both genders. To me it sounds like the person can’t be bothered to project their voice for the entire duration of their sentence, it sounds simpering. I haven’t noticed this in my friends overseas (I’m a dual citizen) anecdotally it’s an American youth culture phenomenon in my opinion. It makes me feel like the speaker is so lazy that they can’t be bothered to keep breathing through the end of their sentence. One of my good male friends is particularly bad about vocal frying and it drives me crazy.

      I’m also trained as an actress, and projecting your voice and enunciating properly, particularly when addressing a group, is important to me. I always assumed that radio presenters would pay attention to their speaking voices, similar to a newscaster, but maybe not quite so stylized. I may be a millennial, but I don’t find vocal frying authoritative at all, although, according to NPR and this blog, I should.

      Also, the presenters of the piece use vocal frying themselves, and then determine that if it bothers you, you’re just old and hate women? How is that impartial? I would have liked to have heard from an SLP on the program to present the facts that Jen Warren did in her comment.

  3. Coming in almost three years late to say if everyone tells you that your voice hurts their ears, it’s definitely your problem and not theirs. Getting so defensive over it shows that you’re still very immature.

  4. Vocal fry is just the new upper-class effected way of speaking. Kind of like the old Thurston Howel the Third and his wife Lovey characters from Gilligan’s island or Willain F Buckley. Paris Hilton was the first person I noticed speaking that way. Seems like girls started emulating it after her. It’s more of a wealthy East or West coastal thing. You don’t hear it much in the Midwest.But it’s usually a great way to tell if the person you’re talking to comes from money.

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