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Published October 09, 2013, 10:00 PM

Speech trend made popular by Kardashians creeping into everyday conversations

Fargo - There’s a rather annoying vocal trend that’s been creeping – or creaking rather – into conversations.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

Fargo - There’s a rather annoying vocal trend that’s been creeping – or creaking rather – into conversations.

It’s known as “vocal fry,” “creaky voice,” “Kardashian style,” and in a more official capacity as glottal fry or laryngealisation. The speech trend may sound annoying to listeners, but it can irritate and damage vocal chords.

To get an idea of what vocal fry sounds like, imagine a bored, ’80s Valley girl who hasn’t slept in days and has been denied caffeine. Now, think of her elongating her vowels and lowering her voice two to three octaves.

“I knoooow, right?”

Vocal fry comes out as a low, creaky vibration produced by the fluttering of the vocal chords.

It’s something that most people do occasionally, usually at the end of sentences, but it’s become a trend more people – especially women – seem to be doing more often.

“If you start to listen for it, you’ll hear vocal fry everywhere,” said Kellam Barta, a recent North Dakota State University graduate who is studying sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University.

Vocal fry is usually combined with other linguistic features to create a persona, which is all used to construct an identity, he said.

A lot of times, people aren’t aware they’re doing it, but sometimes it’s done on purpose, he said.

Such vocal trends can be used to identify with a group or to distance oneself from a group.

Studies have suggested that women started using vocal fry in an attempt to assert masculine authority.

“Today women are getting the same education or even more education than men. They’re working their way into the corridors of power and they need to exercise power,” said Bruce Maylath, an NDSU English professor who had a research team investigate vocal fry in the Fargo-Moorhead area this past spring.

“You would undermine your authority if you sound too different from our notions of what power ought to sound like,” he said. “What may be motivating women to use more of the vocal fry or creaky voice seems to be to sound more authoritative and that comes with taking on roles of power that men used to have.”

Researcher Ikuko Patricia Yuasa of the University of Iowa suggests it’s becoming an increasingly common part of young American women’s unconscious speech performance. She also says it projects an image of contemporary, urban, upwardly mobile women.

“Creaky voice may provide a growing number of American women with a way to project an image of accomplishment (on par with men) while retaining feminine desirability,” she wrote in her report, published in “American Speech, a Quarterly of Linguistic Usage,” in the fall of 2010.

While Yuasa found that listeners associated vocal fry with education, intimacy and genuineness, it was also interpreted as hesitant.

Vocal fry was once studied as a speech impairment, but has become a social phenomenon because celebrities – namely the Kardashian sisters – have started using it, the NDSU report states.

While the trend can be annoying when overused, it can also be physically harmful to the speaker.

Vicki Riedinger, Minnesota State University Moorhead Speech-Language & Hearing Clinic supervisor and director, said she hears vocal fry frequently in people who go to the clinic for assessment or treatment of a voice disorder.

Everyone has an optimal pitch range in which they should speak, she said. When they speak in a pitch lower than their optimal range, they run the risk of irritating the vocal folds, or chords, and damaging the vocal mechanism, she said.

This can cause vocal nodules or bumps on the vocal chords. It can also cause someone to lose her voice.

A speech language pathologist can help treat the problem by helping a person find their optimal pitch range and by suggesting proper breathing techniques, Riedinger said.

‘Language follows power'

NDSU researchers conducted three focus groups with 18 college students to document the use of vocal fry among men and women and the conversational contexts in which it was used.

While Yuasa found vocal fry to be more prevalent among women, NDSU researchers found it to be used more by men, which other studies have suggested as well.

Maylath said often what happens with a seemingly new linguistic feature is that even though men have been using it longer, people notice it more when women use it because it’s not expected.

Steven Hammer, the doctoral student who led the NDSU research team, said when he started the vocal fry research project he thought it would seem annoying, such as the extreme version celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears use. What he found was, while men used a lot of vocal fry, they weren’t talking like the celebrities.

Barta says a small study found that most responses to vocal fry were positive, so when people say they don’t like it, they could be responding to the celebrity persona associated with vocal fry and not the creaky vibration itself.

NDSU researchers found vocal fry most often occurred at the end of sentences and during interjections and filler words, Hammer said.

The reason such vocal trends catch on and spread is that when a way of speaking is associated with a higher social class, people who look up to that group either consciously or subconsciously start to emulate the speech patterns, said Tatjana Schell, a doctoral student in the NDSU English department, who teaches NDSU’s Introduction to Linguistics course.

“When women use vocal fry, it’s part of a hierarchy,” Maylath said. “Language follows power.”

People also tend to take on the speech patterns of the people they interact with, said Linda Houts-Smith, of the MSUM Languages and Cultures department and Teaching English as a Second Language program coordinator.

Language is constantly changing and evolving as children recreate language in their own experience with it, she said. It becomes a shared experience among peers and is why young people pick up aspects of a language their elders never did, she said.

“Elders for centuries have complained about how young people abuse the language,” Houts-Smith said. “It’s part and parcel of language acquisition.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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