In Defense of Uptalk and Vocal Fry

 

The New York Times today has a fascinating article about how young women often act as society’s trendsetters in vocal patterns that are later adopted by the population at large. Two such patterns: uptalk and vocal fry — both which have been scoffed at here on Ricochet. 

Uptalk, or “high-rising terminal”, is a linguistic pattern whereby declarative sentences (those that end in periods) are instead spoken with a questioning intonation (the speaker switches out the period for a question mark).

Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.

In the past 20 years, uptalk has traveled “up the age range and across the gender boundary,” said David Crystal, a longtime professor of linguistics who teaches at Bangor University in Wales. “I’ve heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it,” he said. “I occasionally use it myself.”

Even an American president has been known to uptalk. “George W. Bush used to do it from time to time,” said Dr. Liberman, “and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, that G.W.B. is so insecure, just like a young girl.’ ”

In the podcast that accompanies the NY Times article, linguistics Professor David Crystal discusses how uptalk functions in rather sophisticated ways in conversation. It can be used to ensure that the fellow converser is following along in conversation by forcing him to acknowledge that he’s tracking (with a “right” or “uh-huh”, for example) after every sentence or two. Alternatively, uptalk can be employed for efficiency’s sake to condense a declarative sentence and a question into one. For example, if you were to ask me where I grew up, I could respond, “Aptos, California. Do you know where that is?” Or I could respond, “Aptos, California?” to gauge whether more explanation was necessary depending on whether my uptalk produced a confused look in your eyes, or a firm nod to indicate that you know that Aptos is a great coastal town in Santa Cruz County about 90 miles south of San Francisco.

Vocal fry, or creaky voice, similarly serves a number of conversational functions, according to linguists.

Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, called it a natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.

It can also be used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.

“It’s a mode of vibration that happens when the vocal cords are relatively lax, when sublevel pressure is low,” said Dr. Liberman. “So maybe some people use it when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.”

Ever since I saw a post over on Ann Althouse’s blog about how stupid and obnoxious women who employ vocal fry sound, I’ve been terribly self conscious about my own abuse of this vocal pattern. And I have to confess, I find myself slipping into creaky voice mode quite a lot, especially in phone conversations with family members. But I take mild solace in this:

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

That’s right. Using speech patterns which some deride as sounding irritating, I’m building relationships in an innovative way? Or something like that.

There are 41 comments.

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  1. Member

    Like, chuh?

    • #1
    • February 28, 2012 at 1:34 am
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  2. Inactive

    I have no idea what this vocal fry thing is and the George Sanders clip doesn’t help.

    I do know what uptalk is (As when I learned the term “ADD,” I said to myself “Oh, it has a name!”) and it drives me nuts.

    You say “So what are you studying?” and she says “psychology?” Is that supposed to mean “Is that OK with you?” or “Do you know what that is?”

    Not being a reader of fiction, I wonder if writers use a question mark.

    • #2
    • February 28, 2012 at 2:32 am
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  3. Member

    Uptalk I understood very well, but I had to do a little research to get the full effect of vocal fry. This video helped, but I have to admit that I found her normal speaking voice almost as irritating as her fry tone speech.

    • #3
    • February 28, 2012 at 5:51 am
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  4. Inactive
    Stuart Creque
    Ronaldus Maximus: Both are annoying. […] I was recently at a tech conference where two young men from Facebook were on a panel. I had to leave after ten minutes because literally every sentence was spoken with uptalk. · 3 minutes ago

    Have you noticed the new tendency for people to start their spoken paragraphs with “So”? · 8 hours ago

    A recent high-profile example? Meg Whitman in campaign interviews. She was on Hugh Hewitt’s show and would begin every response with, “So.”

    It struck me like business speak neo-logisms, but in this case over doing the advice to clearly acknowledge an asker’s question. In that sense, it’s somewhat patronizing.

    • #4
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:05 am
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  5. Inactive

    I confess: I find them both extremely annoying.

    But to me, that just begs the question: I know we men have vocal patterns that are equally annoying. I just don’t generally engage in them consciously. My wife also tells me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that the way I talk with female colleagues is different from the way I talk with male colleagues. I know that’s true, but I think I’d also be hard pressed to put my finger on how or why it’s true.

    Language is interesting.

    • #5
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:10 am
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  6. Member

    Diane, perhaps you could also comment on the rhetorical value of repetition. I see you’ve employed that device in your post with respect to the quote from Dr. Yuasa.

    • #6
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:12 am
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  7. Member

    I find that I hear a lot of Australians using uptalk. I don’t know why there should be a cultural connection.

    It does seem to me, though, that uptalk is not precisely rising terminal: it seems more a way to use intonation to indicate that the speaker is in fact not yet at the end of the idea. I’ve noticed some speakers use uptalk at the end of each phrase in an extended sentence or a paragraph, and then use the normal down intonation when they reach the end of the thought they are expressing.

    • #7
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:15 am
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  8. Member

    Or is vocal fry related to deja vu?

    • #8
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:16 am
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  9. Member

    I’m just wondering if “creaky voice” is the same as “Creque voice”, or maybe “Creque writing”. ;-)

    • #9
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:31 am
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  10. Moderator
    Diane Ellis, Ed.: 

    Ever since I saw a post over on Ann Althouse’s blog about how stupid and obnoxious women who employ vocal fry sound, I’ve been terribly self conscious…

    Oh splendid. Now I am, too.

    My grandmother and my mother both had deep, husky voices, so growing up, I thought that that’s how real women were supposed to sound. But my voice isn’t naturally low, so I suspect I practiced vocal fry all the time to get my voice as low as theirs, and now it’s ingrained. However, as soon as I switch to a foreign language, it disappears. Some consolation, I guess.

    • #10
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:40 am
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  11. Member
    Tom Lindholtz: I’m just wondering if “creaky voice” is the same as “Creque voice”, or maybe “Creque writing”. ;-) · 4 minutes ago

    In the Caribbean, it is: there they pronounce the name “creaky,” as in the famous “Creque’s Alley” in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas where the Mamas and the Papas hung out and recorded their breakout album. (I don’t know why they changed the spelling for the album title to “Creeque’s Alley” – maybe faulty memory.)

    Here in California, we go with “creek.” My mother’s name is Sandra, so when she married she became Sandy Creque.

    • #11
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:41 am
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  12. Thatcher

    In the UK the rise of the Australasian False Interrogative (or High Rising Terminal) was strongly correlated with the broadcast of Australian soap operas (Neighbours, Home and Away) in the early evening, when children were just home from school. The broadcasters quickly realised that the audience was schoolchildren and targetted accordingly. The 1980s and 1990s were thick with articles deriding the AFI/HRT, but it has rather gone out of fashion.

    • #12
    • February 28, 2012 at 6:48 am
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  13. Member

    I think the vocal fry can come across as if the speaker is not interested in putting forth the full effort to speak (as Liberman says in the article), which can come across as disrespectful toward the listener in an audio-only format. It’s kind of the podcast equivalent of not making eye contact, rather talking in the other direction. 

    I’m sure it’s not intentional, and it’s something you can improve on as you advance in your professional podcasting career =)

    • #13
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:09 am
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  14. Inactive

    It can be used to ensure that the fellow converser is following along in conversation by forcing him to acknowledge that he’s tracking (with a “right” or “uh-huh”, for example) after every sentence or two.

    We are sure that a need for constant feed-back does not indicate insecurity?

    • #14
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:12 am
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  15. Inactive

    I encountered this professionally, particularly over the last 10 years or so, from very educated young women – most surprisingly from those in their late 20’s with an MBA.

    The biggest problem with it is that it is clearly juvenile. It’s also sloppy and shows poor command of the spoken language.

    It’s bad news for young women trying to establish themselves as someone who has outgrown college and is ready to handle significant responsibility. Of course, all young hires are constantly being evaluated – especially informally – to see who is legitimate. Couldn’t shoot yourself in the foot in a worse way that to “uptalk.”

    I still can’t believe it is prevalent enough to deserve a label. How sad.

    • #15
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:14 am
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  16. Member

    As for the uptalk, saying “Aptos, California?” sounds like you don’t know where you’re from. Picture Tom Green in Road Trip saying “Austin…Massachusetts?” 

    I think “combining a declarative sentence and a question into one” is not the best example, anyway, and I rarely hear uptalk used in that manner. It is usually employed at the ends of several consecutive sentences, making it sound like the speaker is testing each phrase and waiting for approval of his ideas from the listener before proceeding. It truly does give the impression, at least, of uncertainty.

    I’ll tell you what’s even worse though: people who say “right?” at the end of every sentence. “So I was heading to the store, right? And I ran into my old friend from college, this dude I used to play IM frisbee with, right? And he was all, whoa! And we were both like, so good to see you brah!”

    • #16
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:17 am
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  17. Inactive

    I remember hearing John Cleese, in recalling his time with Python, talking about how the Welsh (and in particular, Terry Jones) end all their sentences going up in pitch, whereas the English tend to go down. So maybe the Welshies pioneered uptalk? Dammunblast, I did it just there didn’t I?

    • #17
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:30 am
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  18. Member

    I don’t think it’s just the uptalk, but that the uptalk is always spoken in simple sentences that make it sound so juvenile and silly.

    • #18
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:40 am
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  19. Thatcher

    George Sanders-master of vocal fry

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8-m__lniCY

    • #19
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:44 am
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  20. Moderator

    It’s not just women who do vocal fry — the new college grad at my store does it too. I don’t think he realizes just how immature and insecure in his sales pitch it makes him sound. Of course, the five um/ahs in every sentence don’t do much for him either.

    That being said, Liv Tyler’s vocal fry in Lord of the Rings was necessary for her to be taken seriously as a character. Had Arwen had the same squeaky voice Liv uses in all her interviews, no one would believed that love story …

    (And the Midget Rattlesnake is female? Learn something new every day.)

    • #20
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:45 am
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  21. Contributor
    Diane Ellis Post author
    Stuart Creque: Diane, perhaps you could also comment on the rhetorical value of repetition. I see you’ve employed that device in your post with respect to the quote from Dr. Yuasa. · 2 hours ago

    Edited 2 hours ago

    Oh my goodness, that’s where the “deleted” portion went. Some days the publishing platform hates me.

    • #21
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:47 am
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  22. Contributor
    Diane Ellis Post author
    Palaeologus:It can be used to ensure that the fellow converser is following along in conversation by forcing him to acknowledge that he’s tracking (with a “right” or “uh-huh”, for example) after every sentence or two.

    We are sure that a need for constant feed-back does not indicate insecurity? · 35 minutes ago

    Maybe it does in some circumstances. But I can imagine scenarios in which you’d want to make sure the person you’re talking to is tracking (multi-step instructions or some such situation).

    • #22
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:52 am
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  23. Coolidge

    Having worked in the European region of Intel Corp for several years, I was on a lot of conference calls with Brits. Americans would inevitably join many of these meetings. It was such a stark difference between British women and American women, that it was embarrassing. British women sound clear, eloquent, and commanding. I’m sorry to sound cruel, but it is a distinct disadvantage when women speak with vocal fry when compared to other women who don’t. I don’t see the authoritative effect at all. It sounds weak, irritating, and immature. My own sister does it but I have never said anything because I didn’t know the term “vocal fry” until now. I knew that there was something going on since it has bothered me for years. I must have missed previous conversations about it here, so I feel relieved to know the diagnosis. Regardless of the professional impact this phenomenon has on me, from a personal point of view, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Sorry ladies. In your defense, Diane, you seem to have that trait less than others. I also haven’t been bothered by Meghan for whatever reason.

    • #23
    • February 28, 2012 at 7:56 am
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  24. Inactive
    Diane Ellis, Ed.
    Palaeologus:It can be used to ensure that the fellow converser is following along in conversation by forcing him to acknowledge that he’s tracking (with a “right” or “uh-huh”, for example) after every sentence or two.

    We are sure that a need for constant feed-back does not indicate insecurity? · 35 minutes ago

    Maybe it does in some circumstances. But I can imagine scenarios in which you’d want to make sure the person you’re talking to is tracking (multi-step instructions or some such situation).

    Absolutely. I have both young children and employees.

    It is routinely useful to prod with a question, in the midst of droning on at either.

    Blah, blah, blah?… Oh! He wants my opinion/thought/response? Time to pay attention again.

    I suppose the “Australian False Interrogative” serves in this regard like a pop quiz?

    • #24
    • February 28, 2012 at 8:32 am
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  25. Moderator
    Nic Neufeld: I remember hearing John Cleese, in recalling his time with Python, talking about how the Welsh (and in particular, Terry Jones) end all their sentences going up in pitch, whereas the English tend to go down. So maybe the Welshies pioneered uptalk? Dammunblast, I did it just there didn’t I? 

    Gee… I don’t recall Welsh always going up in pitch at the end, though it doesn’t always go down as much as English. You can listen for yourself here. Seems to me it goes way up for a question (no surprise). For a statement, it goes down, slightly down, the same, or perhaps very slightly up on the very last syllable, depending on the word.

    • #25
    • February 28, 2012 at 8:56 am
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  26. Moderator
    Amy Schley:

    That being said, Liv Tyler’s vocal fry inLord of the Rings was necessary for her to be taken seriously as a character. Had Arwen had the same squeaky voice Liv uses in all her interviews, no one would believed that love story …

    Well, that’s just it. I’ve had some voice teachers try to get me to speak English where my voice naturally lies, and I can’t stand myself. I sound like some mincing, pansy drag queen. Like I’m talking baby-talk all the time.

    I can’t take myself seriously in that register, so I keep dropping down to the lower one, even though it’s rougher and more tiring.

    • #26
    • February 28, 2012 at 9:03 am
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  27. Member

    Oh boy, I’m probably going to regret saying this. I hear it all day in my classes. But when I started hearing it in the “Young Guns” podcasts….well, I just can’t listen to it anymore, as much as I enjoy the analysis.

    • #27
    • February 28, 2012 at 9:15 am
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  28. Coolidge

    Vocal fry. Didn’t know there was a name for that incredibly irritating thing the female DJ on the alternative station here in San Diego does with her voice, though I’m sure she thinks she sounds really cool. I can’t listen for more than 10 seconds.

    • #28
    • February 28, 2012 at 9:17 am
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  29. Inactive

    We Canadians were using uptalk, like, long before the Valley Girls, eh?

    • #29
    • February 28, 2012 at 9:21 am
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  30. Contributor
    Diane Ellis Post author

    Here’s the Althouse blog post I referenced earlier. It includes a video with an example of vocal fray.

    • #30
    • February 28, 2012 at 10:01 am
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