Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Vocal Fry

"Vocal fry" has been a trending topic for about a week now. It began with a Science Now post that starts out ominously
A curious vocal pattern has crept into the speech of young adult women who speak American English...
And then, it exploded. I've seen it posted all over the web, and have largely tried to ignore it. For me, when it comes to reading pieces like these, ignorance is bliss.

But then, Lauren Hall-Lew shared an MSNBC blog post on the topic, entitled "More college women speak in creaks, thanks to pop stars." If I were religious, this would call for the serenity prayer. The post comes along with video from the Today Show, with Matt Lauer discussing the phenomenon.




What is wrong with this video is everything. There is a brief snippet where they interview a real linguist (Janet Pierrehumbert) who says (I paraphrase) "This isn't a new phenomenon, and it's not caused by pop-stars" (see also, the related Language Log post). But see how much air time that gets! The whole premise of the piece is wrong, and she says so, and they power right along like it's irrelevant. If you were to, say, introduce a political figure on air with the incorrect party or state affiliation, you'd have to apologize on air moments later. If you report that the jury found a defendant guilty when they were actually acquitted, you'd be ripped to shreds. You state a bunch of garbage about language, and an expert tells you you've got it all wrong, oh, whatever, it's more fun this way. On this topic, and most others about language, the media coverage is of the same journalistic quality as "Dewey Defeats Truman."

What do I know about vocal fry?

Frankly, I'm not much of an expert on voice quality or register. I'm especially not too familiar with sociolinguistic work on voice quality, and that kind of knowledge seems to be necessary to evaluate the claims of this story.

However, I have had quite a bit of experience dealing with vocal fry. Vowels and their acoustics are my thing, if you didn't know, and a vowel pronounced with vocal fry can be difficult to measure. I've looked at a lot of vowels, which means I've seen a lot of vocal fry, and have my own impressions about where it occurs. Basically, it happens most often when a speaker's pitch drops, like at a phrase boundary, or sometimes when a voiceless consonant follows the vowel.

I'd agree that there is something more than simple mechanics of articulation going on with the use of vocal fry. There is definitely a stylistic component. I'd also agree, impressionistically, that women tend to do a bit more vocal fry than men, or at least it's more noticeable when they do.

But vocal fry is by no means an exclusively female quality. Arguing from anecdotes is poor form, but here is an example of a relatively high profile male doing a lot of vocal fry.


I read the paper.

When watching science reporting like this, there's always the possibility that the researchers' work is being misconstrued, either by the media outlet, or by their institution's press office. So, I made good use of my institutional access to academic journals, and read the original paper (even livetweeted the process) by Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh & Slavin (2011), which was published in the Journal of Voice. Here are the claims that rubbed me so wrong about the Today Show clip.
  • Use of vocal fry is a new phenomenon.
  • Vocal fry is exclusively a female phenomenon.
  • Vocal fry is created and spread by figures in popular media (e.g. Ke$ha, Kim Kardashian).
I read the original paper with the aim of determining whether
  • there is evidence in the paper supporting these claims,
  • the researchers themselves made these claims.
Wolk et al. recorded 34 women between the ages of 18 and 25, both producing a sustained vowel sound, and reading a short passage. Then, three carefully selected sentences from the reading passage were evaluated by trained speech pathologists for whether the speaker was using vocal fry. About 2/3 of the speakers were judged to use vocal fry. They also did some acoustic analysis of the vocal fry.

That is all the evidence that Wolk et al. collected, analyzed, and presented. Needless to say, it provides no support for any of the three points. On the first, they only analyzed one age group, so there is no way to tell if young people do it more or less than older people. Their discussion of background literature actually cites a number of papers from the mid 60s which argue that vocal fry is part of normal speech. So much for it being a new phenomenon. In the discussion, the authors don't outright claim that vocal fry is a new phenomenon, but they do frame the interesting research question as figuring out how much college students do it. They deserve a pass on this point, I think, but they should perhaps consider reframing their research questions as pertaining to a larger cultural pattern.

On vocal fry as an exclusively female phenomenon, I think the structure of this study presupposes that outcome, rather than investigating it. Why study only female college students if you didn't already think that only women did vocal fry? Part of the answer to that seems to be that male subjects are hard to come by for speech pathologists. Wolk et al. cite a previous study of vocal fry that looked at first year speech pathology graduate students. The sample turned out to be 94% female. Abdelli-Beruh, the second author, told the Today Show reporter that 99% of her students are female. Regardless, without a male sample, it's really impossible to draw any hard conclusions about the gender difference. At any rate, Wolk et al. don't outright say that "men don't do it," so I'll give them a pass there.

Now, for the worst part: the all important influence of popular media figures. There is less than zero evidence presented by Wolk et al. for causal influence of any variety. In fact, they cannot even claim that the patterns they found are primarily social rather than being primarily anatomical, or automatic. However, on page 4, they say
It is possible that these college students have either practiced or observed this vocal register and modeled it to match popular figures.
They said it. On the basis of zero evidence, they went ahead and said it. This is not a case of the big bad media twisting an earnest researcher's words. These researchers went ahead and speculated in an unsubstantiated and, I think, irresponsible manner. Claims require evidence, and on this point, they have none.

Vocal Hygiene

This paper also introduced me to a new range of concepts: "vocal abuse," "vocal misuse", "vocal hygiene." I have to admit, this was all news to me. They sound vaguely familiar as something a professional singer or actor worries about.

But in this paper, there was some speculation that the common use of vocal fry might be detrimental to these speakers' vocal health. This aspect was picked up on in the Limericks section of NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
That low crack when I sing is my choice,
but my E.N.T. (Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist) doesn't rejoice.
I end phrases real low,
where my cords shouldn't go.
I'm so cool that I'm hurting my voice.
I'm not a speech pathologist, but I'd be surprised that even speakers who use vocal fry at a high rate could do so to an extent that injures them. Wolk et al. actually don't report how often their speakers used vocal fry, just now many used vocal fry at all (one time out of three sentences). But let's go extreme and say some speakers do it once per sentence with a falling final pitch. This would exclude questions, for instance, or sentences produced with a final rise for some other reason, like uptalk (women just can't win, can they?). That's still not a lot.

I mean, there are languages out there with contrastive creaky voice. That means that in order to say the word you intend to, you have to use vocal fry.

Stay tuned for next time, where I will talk more about the media's coverage, and why I don't think train wrecks like this one are linguists' fault, which I think is a controversial position among linguists.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for the clear and well thought out response to the run-away media coverage that has been happening lately. I'm super curious about your last, casual mention of languages that have contrastive creaky voice. Could you cite a language or paper or researcher that I can use to find out more? Thanks!

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  2. I just found this paper by Matthew Gordon (the [-sociolinguistics] one) on non-modal vowels: http://www.linguistics.ucsb.edu/faculty/gordon/Nonmodal.pdf In the intro, he cites phonemic creaky vowels in Kedang and Jalapa Mazatec, and allophonic creaky vowels in Georgian and Tzeltal.

    Danish also has a super-segmental feature called stød which apparently shows up as creaky voice in some dialects, and in others as tones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C3%B8d

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  3. Joe, hope you don't mind if I get Allison a few references? http://asadl.org/jasa/resource/1/jasman/v120/i5/p3295_s4 is one, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7832925 is another. Closer to home, this (and other related paper(s by the same author) http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2703816 suggests that phonemic distinctions in U.S. English vowel mergers are maintained through phonation contrasts.

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  4. Oh, that merger stuff is cool!

    P.S. I didn't actually edit your comment. I wanted to see if I could move it as a reply under Allison's comment.

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  5. I've worked on several languages with contrastive phonation type (breathiness, creak, tenseness). It's contrastive in many Oto-Manguean languages, like Trique (http://www.linguistics.berkeley.edu/~dicanio/DiCanio_2011_inpress.pdf), different varieties of Zapotec (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892199708001665), and Mazatec (these languages are actually from three separate branches of Oto-Manguean). There is contrastive breathiness and creak (sometimes) in many Southeast Asian languages, where it is called "register." Though, what is called "creak" in these languages is often usually tense phonation instead of creak (http://www.linguistics.berkeley.edu/~dicanio/DiCanio_2009.pdf).

    Certain African languages also have contrastive phonation types. Certain Khoisan languages have contrastive phonation type (along with clicks), like !Xóõ and
    Ju|hoansi (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0095447005000690). Generally speaking, language with contrastive phonation type tend to occur in areas where tone is used contrastively as well.

    However, there are plenty of languages which have contrastive phonation type on consonants as well (and not just vowels). Hindi has murmured (breathy) nasals and many languages throughout the world have glottalized sonorants, though these are particularly common in languages of the Americas (Salish, Oto-Manguean, Athabaskan).

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  6. Thank you for the insight on that speech pattern. English is my second language and I've noticed vocal fry for on long time in podcasting. Now I understand why I can't stand the voice of Grammar Girl!

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  7. Thanks for your analysis. Am I the only one who finds it quite hard to detect "vocal fry"? Anyway, really enjoyed your dissection of the coverage. *Subscribes*

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  8. One small correction: the term "register" is also extensively used by linguists -- see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Register_(phonology).

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  9. E.N.T. refers to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.

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  10. Thanks Mark. This sounds familiar now. Maybe the sociolinguistic claims primed me to think only of the sociolinguistic use of register.

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  11. Would you call chomsky's vocal creaks and croaks vocal fry?

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  12. Great post, as all the Language Loggers have attested to (I'd like to think Language Loggers all wear boots and heavy gloves...). Nonetheless, to further your point that this "vocal fry" business (and what an awesome neologism? If I ever start a greasy spoon near a major linguistics department, I pledge to offer the "vocal fry" omelette with hash and Tabasco for $3.99 ... $1.99 on game days) ...bum ... huh? What was my point? Oh yeah, for a great example of ... um ... "vocal fry" ... far afield of the Britney Spears vector-space, try mid 1970s Conway Twitty's "Hello Darling", home of some of country's best "vocal fry" ever put down on vinyl:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og1QRtcWdEY&feature=related   

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  13. I have noticed younger gals doing this for years, including gals in their late 20's and early 30's. They also use uptalk, and are extremely annoying to listen to.

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  14. It's kind of ironical that the name of the male with vocal fry is Ira which is a female name in Eastern European countries.

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