Friday, 23 June 2017

What The Heck are Vocal Fry and Upspeak?

Today I learned a new word for a linguistic phenomenon I have been noticing for a few years, notably in Canada then Southern California: Vocal Fry. I didn’t know it had a name and you can’t imagine how joyful I get when stuff like that just happen — knowing that you’re not alone when it comes to certain observations. A bit of digging and I was introduced to another term for yet another parallel phenomenon: Upspeak.

First, what is vocal fry? It is the tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice. Currently it used by young women in particular, and some men. Think of the Britney Spears and the Kardashians speaking from the throat and nose. I have added a short YouTube video below so you can see and hear for yourselves. Some of you will probably recognise the voice without knowing there was a term to describe it, just like myself.

While for a significant amount of people fry sounds irritating and even dumb; for others, it’s just a linguistic fad like many epidemics before it, such as Upspeak or Valleyspeak — which also came to be linked with stereotypes like superficiality and airheadedness.

Then what is upspeak? Upspeak is a speech pattern feature of American as well as Australian English where declarative sentence clauses end with a rising-pitch intonation, until the end of the sentence where a falling-pitch is normally applied. In other words, speaking a simple statement as a question, causing a declarative language to appear interrogative. And this one time? At band camp?

In linguistics, upspeak or uptalk
is called a high-rising terminal (HRT), also known as Rising inflection or High rising intonation (HRI),
High-rising tone, Valley girl speech, Valspeak, Talking in questions, Rising intonation, Upward inflection, Interrogatory statement, and Australian Question Intonation (AQI). Yes, all of these describe the very same thing. 

Interestingly, it can also be found in several Irish-English dialects, especially in mid-Ulster and Belfast English. 

Despite the fact that upspeak can be heard in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, mainly between the younger generations (aged 13-25), it is agreed upon that it has first originated from how teenage girls from the Valley area spoke back in the 1970s. The Valley meant here is the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. This is actually where my aunt currently resides in L.A and where I go stay with her 85-year-old hubby, Dr. Toutou, to take care of him as she travels back to Egypt for visits.

Valspeak in particular is an American sociolect which belongs to Valley girls that is characterised by high-rising terminal. The first mention of the term “Valley Girl” and the Valley manner of speech in general is from the 1982 Frank Zappa hit single Valley Girl, on which Moon Zappa, Frank’s then fourteen-year-old daughter, delivered a monologue in “Valleyspeak” behind the music.

The accent became en vogue and an international fad for a certain period. Some time later in 1995 it was clearly portrayed in the movie Clueless among others. Many phrases and catchphrases of Valleyspeak, along with surfer slang and skateboarding slang, have become stable elements of the California English dialect lexicon, and in some cases wider American English. And today it is not only younger women who uptalk and fry it up, but also guys as well as older women. The reason being is that linguistics trends are often contagious. 

Speaking of which, there is the fun SNL sketch, the Californians, that is all about how everyone speaks with such an odd accent, of course with the added dramatisation to make it ridiculous.

Now that you know what vocal fry and upspeak are, let us see why many are against these phonetic crazes and why it is, Like, Totally fine with others.

With upspeaking, ending normal sentences with a questioning tone makes one sound hesitant, lacking confidence and authority, or seeking a reply or validation. Consequently, they end up sounding as if they lack credibility. If someone is looking to get hired for certain jobs or convince clients of some deal, it may not be that efficient. For the listener, one feels like they are always required to reassure them and validate whatever they say. Not that interesting, especially for longer periods of time.

Some argue that younger women learned to add random question marks mid their sentences as a manner of speech because they are often interrupted, so as a way to hold the floor and fend off interruptions they do it subconsciously to keep the conversation going. 

As for the vocal fry, one theory is that it is an adaptation which women are consciously — or subconsciously — employing to convey dominant social status, by sounding more like man.

A downside of the fry is that it could make one sound like they are bored and not much into the conversation, pretending to be cool... or a deflated balloon, or a frog. In fact, it can also sound like the person is opiated or on Xanax.

A couple of years ago, best-selling feminist author Naomi Wolf published an open letter to millennial women, urging them to ditch the vocal fry, she said: Or risk not being taken seriously.

You’re disowning your power,” she wrote. “Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice.” 

Interestingly, Naomi received a retort soon after by Debbie Cameron titled:
An Open Letter To Naomi Wolf: Let Women Speak How They Please.

What is noteworthy is that I am not writing this article to state how unintelligent vocal fry or upspeak sound and beg those who use them to stop as with some articles and videos found in the media as well as on the Internet. But rather, what I hoped to do herein is to cover the topic in a balanced way. Because let’s be honest, language, regional accents, phonetic fads, even voices are constantly changing. Besides, there is no one right way of speaking. Imagine a world where everyone spoke “standard or broadcast” English — boring, huh.

Further, who am I to say there is a right and wrong way to speak. I make up with my own words, in fact, 90 until now. So really, I’m a proponent of language fluidity and hold that language should keep changing with time. Echoing with T. S. Eliot’s words: “For last years words belong to last years language. And next years words await another voice.”

Still, as a listener, it could be a tad annoying that the speaker seems like they are lacking engagement and is not much into whatever is being said to take a proper breath. There is no passion, consequently many listeners stop paying attention to fryers.

Another disadvantage is that this fried weak exhale is barely audible: Now forget the Kardashians and think of Noam Chomsky; but then no one dared to call the man ignorant or a flat-head. My issue with Noam’s grating voice, though, is that I can’t hear most of what he says due to nothing but his vocal fry. And I’ve heard the same from others. What irony in that out of all professions he is a linguist. 

Other than Noam, and because of who the majority of people who use vocal fry nowadays is, it is often linked to being non-educated and airheadedness. It is also linked to trying to fake being intelligent or cool. 

The media and the YouTube comments are a clear example of how many people, mainly older, actually detest this manner of speech; many of whom claim to be singers as well as vocal/public speaking coaches who often share that long-term frying is bad for the vocal chords.
Best-selling feminist author Naomi Wolf created a firestorm in July when she published an open letter to millennial women. Ditch the vocal fry, she said, or risk not being taken seriously.
Best-selling feminist author Naomi Wolf created a firestorm in July when she published an open letter to millennial women. Ditch the vocal fry, she said, or risk not being taken seriously.

Fortunately, I personally don’t let anything outside of me get me to the point of hate or anger anymore. Observation followed by rigorous research usually do the job with the topics that captivate me. Without having the need to judge or write through my emotions is precisely how I learn with each new piece. Oftentimes, as in this instance, I can see both sides of the equation, which allows me to fairly represent the two.

That said, I still wouldn’t want to date someone who casually speaks like this. Nor those who add ‘like’ as a filler word between ever three or four words. Simply because one can tolerate small talks with them, but it cannot be an everyday reality. For if it remains for longer periods of time, keeping up can be exceedingly unpleasant, that such pet peeves may actually feel like ear rape. Especially because some younger ones use a combination of both vocal fry and upspeak. But that’s a personal preference.

However, for a news anchor or reporter or someone working in radio and podcasts this can become unbearable to listeners. In actual fact, many complained about young females who use vocal fry as they did earlier with those who use uptalk or add ‘like’ to their sentences. “They sound immature and unknowing.” Then again, almost no one complain about male podcasters who do it.

Let us conclude this article with what science has to say about the topic.

In one study published in Gender and Society it was found that “The more successful a man is, the less likely he is to use upspeak; the more successful a woman is, the more likely she is to use upspeak.” That’s quite the startling find. 

Other studies suggest that upspeak has also been used by the more powerful person in hierarchical exchanges, such as those between employer and employee, teacher and student, or doctor and patient. “Do you follow? Are you able to hand in the report before the deadline?” In such cases, upspeak, rather than suggesting insecurity, may in fact signal confidence, authority, paternalism, coercion.

On another note, Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert argues that women shouldn’t have to change their voices to appease society. She states that those who complain about female upspeak and vocal fry ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger mens language. As mentioned, I have personally met guys who do speak like that — whether upspeak or fry — so Eckert does have a point. Again, think of Noam Chomsky.

Conversely, a final study, which Naomi Wolf had cited in her open letter, found that female users of vocal fry are perceived as less competent, educated, trustworthy, attractive and less hirable. The study also notes: “The negative perceptions of vocal fry are stronger for female voices relative to male voices.” That we already know.
study that found female users are perceived as less competent, educated, trustworthy, attractive and hirable. The study also notes: “The negative perceptions of vocal fry are stronger for female voices relative to male voices.”

In the end, linguistic trends such as vocal fry and upspeak are like fashion to the populace who are easily fascinated with any novelty. That is just normal. Because herd mentality is a genuine thing; trends come and go and language is in perpetual motion. In actuality, much of what is seen as cool for a certain period of time loses its coolness soon enough.

Now that you know the story, Do What Thou Wilt with the information. Never allow others dictate to you how you should act or, like, behave in your own Life


From English as a Third Language to Author — How I Expanded My Vocabulary

The Writing Process and the Creative Block

Words With No Direct Translation To English

More Words With No Direct Translation To English

Words With Italian Origin That Are Still Used Today In Egypt

The Real Origin of “It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg”

How ‘XOXO’ Came To Mean Hugs & Kisses

Why Many Place Names End with ‘-Stan’

The Origin of ‘Wishbone’ and the “Yadas - Fi bali” (يدس - في بالي) Game

Some Arabic Sayings and Their Translations — أمثال عربية و ترجمتها

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. David Fletcher. Richmond, VA15 October 2017 at 11:22

    Uptalk as a conversational style/gambit seems to be an attempt to solicit buy-in and/or validation, rather than some new expression of dominance. At its worst, I think it does indicate hesitancy or fear of "putting yourself out there," voicing an opinion, without continuous validation along the way to completion of the thought. It seems to be a narrative analog of the I'm OK/You're OK/Safe-space world that has accrued over the last 20 years or so. The simple declarative rhythm, ending in the down-tone period, is viewed as aggressive and non-inclusive. I've tried to glean some of this from conversations with Millenial friends who are willing to discuss it in terms of generational shift, group dynamics and the like--this seems the best summation. I'll confess to being 60, raised on the mellifluous ideal of standard/"received" intonation...the voice of radio/tv presenters (male and female), actors, and public speakers from roughly the 1920s through the 1990s. It was/is--to pre-Millenial ears--the pattern that uses the full range of tone generation and a rise/fall rhythm of pitch to indicate mood, intent, punctuation, etc. Call it analog as opposed to digital. Millenial fried uptalk is heard as a contrived sort of hive-speak, often defended as a "we don't have an accent" social pose--when in fact it was a California-sourced and media-enforced contrivance...sort of the vocal equivalence of the ubiquitous planned-community development. It's so omnipresent and uniform as to sound manufactured, like a North Face padded vest or skinny-fit trousers.

    1. Thank you for the astute observations, David. I do agree with your words. It seems that the older one gets, the more one sees the "Bigger Picture," if you will. And language is no different.  

  2. In front of an audience, it is unquestionably not abnormal to see guitarists, and even bassists utilizing floor-based impacts pedals keeping in mind the end goal to control their sound to coordinate their instrumental execution with what they hear in their heads.Best vocal processor