Vocal Fry and the Language of the Oppressed

A respected, strongly feminist female friend of mine shared this study the other day. It’s about the use of vocal fry by young women and how it impacts their career potentials. Quick and dirty: using the low, creaky voice known as vocal fry is bad for business.

What this says to me, as someone with a B.A. in psycholinguistics and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy Education, is not that vocal fry is inherently bad, but rather, that it is not seen as being part of the language of power. What I’m seeing in the media, however, is a broad-spectrum condemnation of the practice as being somehow “less than” normal speech. Watching a few videos and skimming headlines after googling vocal fry, this is some of what you get:

“The Vocal Fry Epidemic”

Is vocal fry hurting women’s job prospects?

“animal like” and “Women’s affectation”

‘Vocal Fry’ Creeping into U.S. Speech Patterns

America’s young women are running out of oxygen.

So: a trend that a certain class of young women is (most likely subconsciously) picking up as a marker that connects them to their peers is a creeping epidemic with animal-like characteristics that makes them sound oxygen-deprived (code for brain-dead?). This is what the media thinks of vocal fry? No wonder it’s hard on women’s job prospects.

But let’s please, for three minutes, take a single step back and remember Paulo Freire and bell hooks. To grossly simplify and pull out the most basic of the ideas that emerged from some of their writings for me:

  • A culture of power exists. If you don’t know how to wield it, you’re going to struggle.
  • If you are part of a culture that is not the culture of power (being black, being a woman, being a poor minority, being gay, etc.), your non-power culture is undoubtedly important to your identity.
  • You have three choices: (1) Give up your identity in order to pass in the culture of power. (2) Struggle. (3) Learn to codeswitch.

While I was studying for my masters, the consensus among educators seemed to be that when you’re teaching minority kids and kids for whom English is a foreign language, teaching them to codeswitch effectively without feeling shame for their own language and culture is the best thing you can do for them. So I’d like to know why on Earth we’re treating vocal fry (and similarly, uptalk) as something other than the non-white-male-power-culture-indicator that it seems to be?

Two key points about speech patterns:

  1. They tend to be picked up and developed subconsciously--vocal fry is not something young women are doing to piss you off and odds are 10-1 most users aren’t aware of doing it most of the time.
  2. They’re generally picked up for a reason--vocal fry and uptalk may primarily be serving as social markers that promote group coherence and reinforce one’s own identity as belonging to a particular group, but they may also result from specific cultural pressures. To hypothesize a bit:

Vocal fry: This happens when our speech strays into the lower range of what our vocal cords can produce. Women tend to have higher ranges than men, so does it surprise anyone that women might end up producing this particular effect if having a lower voice means not being treated like a child?

Uptalk: Turning a statement into a question is a way of pulling back from your point, which seems, to me, an unsurprising behavior from a segment of the population that is systematically undermined from infancy.

People hating on vocal fry are hating on young women. Stop it. Stop it RIGHT NOW. You’re adding to the problem. Granted, you might be kindly motivated in wanting to see them succeed, but please, PLEASE, don’t leave it at “vocal fry will keep you down.”

The underlying problem with vocal fry is that it says “I am a young woman,” and we live in a world where being a woman (especially a young, attractive one) is criminalized. So please, if you’re in a position to speak against vocal fry, don’t. Instead, speak against the homogeneity of the language of power. Advocate for a world in which diversity is seen as a strength in a company, not just a quota to be filled. Lament that this isn’t yet the case. Don’t tell your mentees and students “Don’t be you in this way and that way and this other way.”

Instead, arm those young women, those black students, those immigrants, those downtrodden souls with the keys to power. Tell them how the powerful speak, how they dress, how they smell, how they shake hands. Empower them to be able to work for their right to be seen as equals either from within the power of culture or from the outside.

And then get out of the way and let them carry on the fight for a world where we are judged not by the glottalization of our words, but by the content of our character.

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