January 24, 2013 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: That little-girl frog voice? It’s more than annoying

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Well, it’s finally gotten to the point I’ve got to say something about it. I shouldn’t really because in so doing, I clearly identify myself as the hopeless fuddy duddy I wish I weren’t. But I am what I am, and I can’t stand this thing any longer, so I must waggle a bony finger at that vocal inflection I have until now identified as the annoying little-girl frog voice.

Like everyone, I have my druthers and thoughts on the proper order and behavior of things in life. I do prefer speech to be crisp and clear, relatively free of twang or drawl or deliberate artifice and, in fact, delivered mostly in complete sentences. I tolerated the “Valley Girl lift,” when voices were raised in pitch at the end of a sentence, as if the statement morphed midthought into a question. That has faded largely. I outlasted it. But now comes this other thing. I thought I could just shut up and wait for this vocal aberration to peak and fade, but alas, it’s growing – and it’s driving me nuts. I will concede that’s not hard to do, but c’mon, this is really annoying.

I began to notice it a year or so ago and finally, to get the scientific scoop, I went for information to my friend Roberta Jackson, graduate program director at the Eastern Washington University Department of Communication Disorders. She tells me it’s got a name: vocal fry, a pattern of speech at the bottom of a person’s pitch range that emits a raspy, creaky tone. A speaker accomplishes this by allowing air to vibrate the vocal cords slowly, usually at the end of a sentence. Hence, the creaking, quivering sound.

The damn sound is everywhere. Although in America, it’s mostly identified with women, that’s not universally true, and now speakers of other languages (the Dutch, for example) are doing it. Singers, apparently, do it to improve their ability to hit lower notes. Brittney Spears, for one, is known for it – which, of course, is another clear reason why it should be avoided, if not outlawed outright.

I even Googled it. Good grief, there’s quite a raft of information about vocal fry floating around out there, including numerous studies on it, some of which netted (to me, at least) scary results. In one, nearly two-thirds of the participating female college students exhibited vocal fry in their speech patterns. One linguist’s study showed that observers of the pattern interpreted it as an indication of prestigious intelligent speech. Lord, help me.

It is also reported that young people lapse into its use more often in association with one another, something like a secret handshake among peers. Fine with me, but please keep it out of my face. It’s also heard more often on radio stations that market to the young, and not usually on NPR. I’m good with that, too – well, mostly.

This thing used to be considered a speech disorder, and now it’s a language fad. And it’s everywhere. I hear it in TV commercials (especially one for a popular online college), in interviews with guests on “Today” and at the YMCA here in Spokane. There really is no escape. It’s fingernails on the blackboard (remember blackboards?) to me,

No, no, no – I’m not arguing for the Queen’s English, an absence of split infinitives or the eschewing of all slang. I like to have a little fun with language myself, but this creaky vocal thing, this gargoyle of sound, especially in excess, cannot be good for the voice. I know it’s not good for my ears.

Yes, yes, yes – this is an old person’s crankiness, a curmudgeonly rant about another new-fangled way of talking. I do recall using the now-embarrassing word “groovy” myself when I was a teen and I endured hearing “bitchin’ ” as a complimentary adjective as a young adult. And I managed to suffer through hearing “like” used as a pausitive expression multiple times per sentence. But surely there comes that tipping point, that moment when one must declare, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not taking it anymore!”

That may be a bit extreme, especially since I’m not so mad as I am irritated. The irritable among us (me, clearly) are easily moved to whine about things we have absolutely no chance of influencing. I just have to state for the record and my own dwindling mental acuity that I think vocal fry sounds so dumb, so affected and is so grating. Nothing will come of the statement, but I feel better.

The good thing is that it can’t be reduced from sound to print, so perhaps we’re safe from vocally fried texts, emails, tweets, Facebook postings, etc. At least I hope so.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman. com/columnists/.


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