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When it comes to linguistic innovation, young women are often leading the charge. (Shutterstock)

If your teenager’s ‘vocal fry’ bothers you, you may be behind the times

Have you noticed that your teenager’s voice sounds unnaturally low and gravelly, like a door on rusty hinges, or a quacking duck? Does it annoy you?

You’ve probably detected vocal fry, or what linguists call creaky voice. This voice quality has received significant attention from both linguists and the popular media in the last 10 years, and is believed to be on the rise among young people, especially young women.

Feminist commentators have offered various theories. Some say by using creaky voice, women are suppressing their own authority. On the opposite end, others say the hand-wringing about creaky voice is just another case of society policing women’s voices instead of listening to them.

As parents of teenagers, you may be confused about why your child is using creaky voice, and what, if anything, you should do about it.

As a linguist, I have been interested in the ways in which creaky voice can be used a social resource in conversation. So, to start off, what’s actually going on during creaky voice?

Regular vibration cannot occur

The vibration of our vocal folds produce our voices. When the vocal folds are long, thin and taut, they vibrate faster and create a higher pitch. When they are short, thick and relaxed, they vibrate slower, creating a lower pitch. This embedded sound file shares some examples:

During creaky voice, the vocal folds are so short, thick and relaxed that regular vibration cannot occur. Air cannot pass through them at a regular rate, but comes out in short bursts.

You can hear these individual “pulses” of air escaping through the folds, like the sound of a popcorn kernel popping. The result is a very low-pitched, monotone and rough-sounding voice.

This happens to most of our voices quite regularly, especially when we finish speaking and our voices drop in pitch. But what linguists call “creak” can also be drawn out, or occur over an entire sentence.

Relax: it’s not bad for the voice

It has been suggested that people try to avoid creaky voice because it may cause damage to the vocal cords. Yet, while creaky voice can be a symptom of vocal disorders, there is no evidence it causes damage.

The voice quality called “creak” is actually used regularly in several different languages: for example, languages in the Zapotec, Salish and Wakashan families. So the idea that this vocal style causes damage is unlikely.

A popular theory about creaky voice is that young people are trying to emulate celebrities. The regularly cited sources are Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian and Zooey Deschanel.

However, what is more likely is that these famous women are simply reflecting a pre-existing trend. When it comes to linguistic innovation, it is well-established in the field of language variation and change that young women are often leading the charge.

Young women continue to be the most common targets of criticism, regardless of the fact that creaky voice is also used by people in other gender and age groups.

So, if not to sound like celebrities, why might your teen be using creaky voice? Some have suggested that creaky voice is simply a mindless affectation; however, multiple linguistic studies published over the last ten years contradict this: creaky voice is an important vocal resource for achieving communicative goals and performing our social identities.

I explored this in preliminary research by examining how a person’s social situation influences if and how often they used creaky voice.

I recorded the speech of two twenty-somethings, a female and a male, both cisgender and heterosexual, in different social situations — for example, at a family dinner, a meeting with a community group and a coffee date with a friend.

I found that they used creaky voice more often in situations they found less comfortable. Within these situations, they used creaky voice most often when they were sharing information.

Creaky voice was a tool that these individuals used to establish authority as knowledge-holders in situations where they did not feel comfortable sharing knowledge.

Linguistics professor Erez Levon has suggested that there is a fundamental meaning association between creaky voice and suppressed emotion. Creaky voice has the potential to indicate a whole field of related meanings, such as non-agression, toughness, authority or masculinity.

Research has connected creaky voice to suppressed emotion and authority. (Shutterstock)

Creaky voice can certainly be used in rather unrelated contexts: for example, researchers have noted its use can add expressiveness to a performance or to mark certain statements as parenthetical, much like you would put parentheses around certain information in writing.

In other words, the use of creaky voice is a multifaceted and rich resource for reaching communicative goals. Creaky voice will inevitably evolve due to speakers using it in novel, creative ways, for this is what we do with language. As this happens, linguistic research will continue to find more meaning associations and functions.

If you might still find creaky voice annoying, you’re not alone.

Radio program and podcast This American Life reported that when sociolinguist Penny Eckert asked more than 500 people to rate how authoritative a female reporter sounded speaking in creaky voice, people under 40 found the voice quite authoritative and older people did not.

Eckert said she came to see her own and older people’s irritation at creaky voice as being about policing young people — particularly women.

She said old people tend to get cranky and she admitted that she was, to put it kindly, behind the times.

So what should you do about your teen who uses creaky voice? Listen to them. They’re probably telling you more than you think.

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