CARRIE: Welcome to the Vocal Fries Podcast. This is a podcast about linguistic discrimination and how not to be an asshole. I’m Carrie Gillon.
MEGAN: I’m Megan Figueroa. I’m a linguist and that makes me a scientific studier of language. This does not mean that I speak a ton of languages – that’s not what a linguist does. Although there are some linguists that do know a lot of languages, I am NOT one of them. And actually the reason I’m not one of them made me pursue linguistics in the first place. My dad’s first language is Spanish but he decided not to teach me for a variety of reasons that will come up in a later episode – but spoiler alert, it’s based in ethnic discrimination.
CARRIE: I’m a linguist and I’m concerned about the way people police other people’s speech. In fact, I even gave a TEDx talk about linguistic discrimination and I’ve always been concerned with how we try to discriminate against each other in linguistic ways. So if you want to see my TEDx talk you can go over to our tumblr. We’ll get the information at the end of the podcast and it will give us a little taste of other things we’ll be talking about in this podcast. I decided I needed to continue this work by starting this podcast and I asked Megan to join me.
MEGAN: Yeah, and I was actually in the audience at that TEDx talk and I was really shocked that people around me were shocked that linguistic discrimination existed. That was a wake-up call for me, because I always assumed that people knew that they were being assholes. They actually don’t know. I’m happy to help get the message out there. I am often policed for my own speech and that’s something that we’re gonna be talking about today with our first topic.
CARRIE: Yes: vocal fry.
CARRIE: Just a warning before we actually start: we are not child-friendly. Maybe the asshole thing gave it away, but just in case: we swear like sailors.
MEGAN: Which is something that people police as well.
CARRIE: Especially in women.
CARRIE: Which also ties into what we’re talking about. Our first episode is about the dreaded vocal fryyyyyyy, and yes: this topic has been done to death. I found over half a million hits on Google on vocal fry. People love to comment on it. Feel free to comment on anything that we talk about, except for this one thing. We don’t want to hear about you complaining about vocal fry, because, as you’ll hear by the end, it’s not something you should be judging.
MEGAN: And also, don’t write us complaining about anything that pertains to our voices.
CARRIE: You can complain about things. I think it’s fine if we say something that you think is incorrect but…
MEGAN: Right! Not about our vocal affectations or such. Don’t write to me saying that I say “um” a lot. We can introduce that stuff when we talk about this female stuff.
CARRIE: One of my friends even said to me recently that “vocal fry is a thing that people like to complain about to make themselves sound interesting”.
MEGAN: Because it’s this one academic topic that everyone – it’s really accessible.
MEGAN: With half a million hits. When I did a google search and looked at the news, there’s something almost every week…
CARRIE: I know!
MEGAN: …about it. So this is very relevant, and you’re right, everyone has something to say about it.
CARRIE: Yes, and it’s usually negative.
MEGAN: Usually negative.
CARRIE: And I think that we should just say: don’t do that! Stop judging people for it, because it’s incredibly sexist, as we will discuss. We’re also gonna have some more resources on the tumblr if you really want to learn more academic information about vocal fry. We’re not going to be too academic. We’re gonna keep it somewhat superficial, partially because neither of us are phoneticians, so we don’t have the very deep knowledge that a phonetician would have.
CARRIE: We’ll have a few instances from the half a million hits on our tumblr as well. Now, what IS vocal fry? It’s also called creak or creaky voice – although I did read somewhere that actually creak and creaky voice are different from vocal fry a little bit, but in a way that is very technical. We’re just going to gloss over that and continue to think that they’re the same thing. It’s also sometimes called laryngealization.
MEGAN: As I’m listening to you right now, I’m feeling like I’m learning something because every time I get ready to explain vocal fry to someone I’ll re-up on what I know about it and then completely forget. Like right after I explain it, because again I’m not a phoneticians but also it’s I have the lived experience of having vocal fry so why do I need to know what I’m doing. But it’s good to know, even if y’all forget about it immediately.
CARRIE: Yeah, I feel the same way. Every time I try and talk about it I’m like, “Wait, what is it again?” Another way of thinking about it: it is called a type of phonation, which is another linguistic term. It really has to do with the way that we manipulate our larynx, or change the sound, change the way that the air flows through our voice box. Modal voice is the sort of neutral voice that most people have at least sometimes. Singers are taught to use the modal voice/the modal phonation. There’s also whisper phonation. So if you whisper, you do something different with your larynx. Also falsetto, which is kind of the opposite of vocal fry, because you’re going higher. Vocal fry actually lowers your register. We’ll talk about that a little bit more too, in a minute. What happens is you’re constricting your vocal folds so that they’re slacker, which it’s just really weird to think about. But anyway, that’s the way it works. Then, it could get this creak or frying sound out of your vocal folds (vocal folds or vocal cords, either way). It lowers your register up to eight octaves, so if you really want to sing a very, very, very low note, you’re gonna use vocal fry. Like Tim Storms, who I’d never heard of before this week, when I was doing my research. He holds the world record for the Guinness world records for lowest note produced by a human, and he uses vocal fry to get that note, and the widest vocal range, because he can go really, really low but also high with his falsetto.
TIM STORMS: [sings] In my suffocation, myyyyyyyyyy
CARRIE: It’s used a lot in music, for example Johnny Cash uses it a lot to hit his low notes.
JOHNNY CASH: [sings] I fell into a burning ring of fire. I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of the fire, the ring of fire.
CARRIE: Metal singers often use it to get that sort of growly sound. So, it’s everywhere.
MEGAN: We have a Britney Spears. She’s a vocal fryist Maybe we can add the Britney bitch here.
BRITNEY SPEARS: It’s Britney, bitch.
CARRIE: It’s also used in some languages to create new words. I’m gonna try. There’s a language in Mexico called Jalapa Mazatec, and I’m gonna try to pronounce two words. It also has tone, so I’m gonna mess up the tone but /si/ with just modal voice means ‘dirty’, whereas /si/ with creaky voice means ‘holiday’. So, you have to be able to manipulate your vocal tract to create different meaning.
MEGAN: This might be something that’s hard for a second language learner of Jalapa Mazatec, but this is something that they’re going to learn, if it’s their first language growing up.
CARRIE: Yeah, it would be very hard for an English speaker to learn to do this, because most of us either – there probably are some people who don’t use vocal fry it all although I doubt it – but most of us use it at least somewhat, but we don’t do it to create meaning like that.
MEGAN: Right, but as someone who vocal fries all the time, I’m one, I tried it and I felt like it was hard for me to do. But maybe I’m just judging myself too harshly because society judges me too harshy. But yes, it’s easy for someone to do if it’s their first language. It’s something that’s required by the language. Maybe you’re starting to get the point of why it’s a real asshole move if you’re judging it, when it’s actually required by some languages.
CARRIE: Right, it’s just a feature. We have all kinds of features of language and this one is denigrated – but for purely gender-oriented reasons. In English, most speakers tend to use it more at the end of a sentence or sometimes at the end of phrases or words, but Megan, you use it almost entirely through your entire speech.
CARRIE: I definitely use it, but I think I use it more canonically, where I use it more at the end. So, that’s what vocal fry is at least sort of somewhat superficially, but I think I understand it better than I did even a week ago. One of the things that people talk about is that “Oh vocal fry, it’s this new thing!” But it is not it is not new, at all. As I was looking at this, I was looking for academic research at first. In 1989, Dwight Bollinger described creak as a macho style that men often adopt sometimes to convey authority. So macho, authority, men. You can see that that’s how it was viewed at the time. In 1964, David Crystal and Randolph Quirk noticed that men used it as a marker of superior social class. So again: men, superior. But there’s even earlier academic work going back to the 30s. In 1937, John Firth claimed that creak was associated with certain social attitudes. I think all three people involved – or sorry four people – were talking about the UK mostly. This was a British phenomenon, but mostly British men. But still. There’s also a semi-famous example from the United States in the 30s: Mae West. If you think about how she talked, she had so much vocal fry, and back then it seemed to be considered sexy.
MAE WEST: Well, when I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.
CARRIE: It’s very interesting that the sexy thing has turned into this horrible thing that nobody should do now, in 2017.
MEGAN: And it was even sexy for women back then.
CARRIE: Right, so it’s been around since at least the 30s in both the UK and the US.
MEGAN: And men and women.
CARRIE: Mostly men!
MEGAN: Mostly men at that point.
CARRIE: The only example I could find was Mae West. There are probably other examples, but I have that’s the only one I found. But still, it was mostly a male thing, or else at least it was considered to be a male feature. So, why is it disparaged? I think it’s because sexism.
MEGAN: I mean. Heavy sigh.
CARRIE: Exactly. Because no one ever points out in men. And it happens all the time. Two men in particular that I associate it with very strongly: Jeff Bridges, an older American male.
JEFF BRIDGES: Has it ever occurred to you, that instead of uh, you know, running around uh uh blaming me, you know, given the nature of all this new shit, you know, i-i-it this could be a a a lot more uh uh uh complex. I mean it’s not just, it might not be just such a simple, a, you know?
CARRIE: and Benedict Cumberbatch a younger British man.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: Now, so you know I tell you what we Brits do, when the going gets tough, but it feels like the whole world’s crashing down around you: uh, we drink. We drink so much.
CARRIE: They have it so much but no one ever says “Ah! What are they doing?” Why?
MEGAN: And in fact, I’m always like swoon, Jeff Bridges.
CARRIE: [LAUGHTER] Ok… maybe a few years ago.
MEGAN: You thought I was gonna say Benedict.
CARRIE: No. Mmm-mm.
MEGAN: No. Mmm-mmm. Ah, Crazyheart.
CARRIE: I think it’s disparaged because I think there’s two things going on. One of the things that’s going on is that when we think of vocal fry, we think of the Kardashians. And the Kardashians do have vocal fry, but they also have other features that I think people sort of put together in this big pot and call vocal fry together. They have vocal fry, they have uptalk, they use “like” a lot, and then they also have this vowel elongation, like vowel elongatiooooooon, which allows you to creak even more. I think when people think vocal fry, they think Kardashians, and they think these features together combined.
MEGAN: Right, because when I hear people that try to emulate vocal fry, they will often do all of that.
CARRIE: Right, exactly. I think part of it is it’s associated with this group of women who are considered to be vapid. I think that that’s part of what’s going on. They’re judging their speech as though it is a proxy for their personality.
MEGAN: Right and we see this too with Zooey Deschanel. I found that someone described her: “the red carpet quips delivered by America’s favorite quirky girl, Zooey Deschanel”. For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking of it like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of speech. I don’t know what it is. I feel like we always assume it’s just a woman, and we’re just here like…
CARRIE: A young woman, probably from California, maybe doesn’t have any serious interests…
MEGAN: Right, because when I was googling vocal fry, I’m seeing these articles from Business Insider. And their advice to women (usually) on how to get a job, and it’s to get rid of your vocal fry. Because they say quote “you’re less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, ultimately less hireable.” So, all of these things.
CARRIE: Well, good luck with finding someone without vocal fry at all.
MEGAN: Right, and again, if a man is using it, it’s fine.
CARRIE: They don’t notice it. They don’t perceive it.
MEGAN: And one of the best examples of this is – I think – Ira Glass on this American Life. He, in 2015, did a little segment on vocal fry and he was talking about how the most angry letters that they get are about women’s voices. He was talking to one of the women on NPR that was getting some email about her voice and he was like, to her, “Did you notice that I do it?”, and she was like, no I didn’t notice you did it until you said it. He said that no one’s ever written in to complain about his voice. So, even this woman that was getting emails about how her vocal fry was terrible didn’t even notice it in Ira.
CARRIE: Well, we’re not trained to notice it in men. We’re not trained to pick on men at all. We are trained to pick on women. Also 99% invisible, that podcast, they have an automatic email response to anyone who emails them about vocal fry or women’s voices in general. It’s just like a “we’re not gonna even read this email” kind of response, which I love.
MEGAN: I do too. You know we’re still gonna get emails about my voice.
CARRIE: And mine too, but yours more probably.
MEGAN: Right, right, right.
CARRIE: Okay, so there’s one thing, I think people associate it with women who are perceived to be vapid or not having serious interests. But I also think that there’s another factor and I sort of hinted at it earlier. If men use it or were using it – I think they still use it – men are using it as a sign of social status, like, “hey, look at me, I have authority”. Then women started taking it on. That’s bad. Because women should never have authority. We should never pretend that we have authority. We should never behave as if we have social status. That makes us uppity. MEGAN: Yes, and there’s nothing we hate more than uppity bitches.
CARRIE: Exactly! Exactly. So, that’s what I think is going on.
MEGAN: I am totally buying into that. Which is really frustrating that we have two completely different analyses of what’s happening. People will have this – within the same person -someone is going to hear vocal fry and think that a woman couldn’t possibly be educated or couldn’t possibly have complex thoughts, but also at the same time want to make sure like women in general don’t climb the social ladder in any way. So, it’s signaling something to them in that manner too – and all this is happening subconsciously. Not for all people, but a lot of the hate for vocal fry is happening subconsciously.
CARRIE: Yeah, the reasons for it are subconscious.
MEGAN: Yeah, right.
CARRIE: Yep. So: please stop.
MEGAN: We’ve been talking about how it’s perceived. I found other ways to describe it as annoying and bizarre. There is a Lexicon Valley, which is Slate’s podcast about language. Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo – Mike asked Bob to describe this phenomenon that is just grinding his gears, his old man gears. He starts talking about vocal fry, and the best part about this is that what he’s saying that it’s mostly women, he fucking vocal fries.
CARRIE: I know! I was so angry.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s almost exclusively among women, and young women at that, and girls.
MEGAN: I did some science on that. You can find it on our tumblr. I proved it with science.
CARRIE: You scienced the shit out of that.
MEGAN: There is vocal fry when he is talking about how mostly women do it. You can find that on our tumblr. And Bob, if this gets to Bob: you vocal fry. I am so sorry to break it to you.
CARRIE: How does that make you feel?
MEGAN: I know. He calls it mindless affectation, and he says it’s so repulsive, and I’m like, “l-o-l, irony”.
CARRIE: Yeah, and the other – Mike, also fries. In fact, he fries more.
MEGAN: Yes, but Mike wasn’t having any problems.
CARRIE: Yeah, he was being more neutral.
MEGAN: He was, he was trying to yeah. But Bob, repulsive? I mean.
CARRIE: I can’t remember it was on that podcast, but I think that was the one where they mentioned – I think was Mike said – when linguists studied vocal fry, they noticed that women did it more than men. Maybe that is true, and maybe that is part of the reason why we notice it in women more. But, I don’t know I think mostly it’s just because we like policing what women do, what they wear, what they say, and how they say it.
MEGAN: Another way it’s perceived – it depends on who you ask. Stanford linguist Penny Eckhart did a study on vocal fry and she asked people under 40 to describe the people that are using vocal fry and can you please describe what you think about these people, and they call them authoritative. We have people like Bob, who are older, and maybe see this as the downfall of communication, but we see people under 40 saying that actually this person is authoritative. I trust this person. It may very well be because these people also use vocal fry. How it’s perceived depends on your age, and it’s going to depend on your gender as well. But, there’s a point to be made that women also judge other women for using it. It’s not only men that are paying the patriarchy toll. Women are putting coins in that motherfucker too.
CARRIE: As always.
MEGAN: As always. We are part of the problem as well. You might be even worse of a problem if you’re older, no offense.
CARRIE: Hashtag no offense.
MEGAN: Hashtag not all olds.
CARRIE: Oh no. We’re gonna get rid of – the old people are just gonna hate us.
MEGAN: I know. And it’s gonna come out that I’m a millennial so this is all just terrible.
CARRIE: Yeah, well, I’m Gen X so I’m okay, right?
MEGAN: Look how we have this intergenerational conversation here. If Gen X can do it, all of us can do it. We kind of mentioned already that it seems to be that the perception of women and women podcasting is that we all have annoying voices and we should all go away and shut up.
MEGAN: It just seems to be a real big problem when it comes to podcasting. So like we said, 99% Invisible, they’ve had issues. NPR was trending for some reason. I was looking at the at the hashtag, and there were women sharing stories basically like, “here’s some letters that I’ve received over the years of how it was a really good story that I was reporting on but maybe you shouldn’t sound like a Kardashian” or etc. Then many podcasts that I love to listen to that are hosted by women have at one point mentioned vocal fry.
CARRIE: Like my favorite murder.
MEGAN: My favorite murder, call your girlfriend, which I listen to. They’ve talked about it. Maybe this goes back to your analysis of it. It’s podcasts – when you have your own podcast you’re the authority on whatever you’re talking about, or at least you have this platform. People are uncomfortable giving women that platform. I don’t know what it is, but we hate when we hate when women have podcasts it seems.
CARRIE: Well, we hate when women talk too much, which is basically more than 17% of the conversation or something like that.
CARRIE: I meant – that might be the wrong number. I think it’s the right number for women in a cast. So if you have more than 17% women in a movie cast, people start complaining there’s too many women. That’s where I got the 17% from.
MEGAN: There is a study too – like in a boardroom or a meeting or something like that – it’s above a certain, I mean it’s way below 50, but if it’s something like: if there’s X number of women, people are like, “Hmmm, are there too many women here?” Can you imagine like how horrible it is to have two women on a podcast or just women talking to each other on a podcast it’s like.
CARRIE: Oh. My. God.
MEGAN: Right, I mean, we then become afraid that like…
CARRIE: Women are taking over. MEGAN: And menstrual cycles are all gonna sync together. It’s perceived as a shitty thing for women to do, but not for men to do.
CARRIE: No, it’s not even noticed. It’s just not even noticed.
MEGAN: Why are people doing it? We’ve talked about Jalapa Mazatec. People are doing it because it’s part of their language. If we use it, we have two different words. It’s an integral part of language. Peer influence – it’s everywhere. We want to sound like the people around us, like we’ve mentioned, in group identity. Oftentimes this is subconscious. I have no idea why I started doing this or when I started doing this. It could have started with Britney Spears, who knows.
BS: It’s Britney, bitch.
MEGAN: I was a perfect age for that. I have authority on two subjects, which is linguistics and 90s pop. Maybe NSYNC was doing it too. I don’t know, but I picked it up somewhere. I think this is something we’ll talk about more during the podcast: this is a big thing about sounding like the people around us.
CARRIE: Yeah, it’ll come up a lot.
MEGAN: This is a really important point, and like Carrie mentioned earlier, it’s used at the end of sentences or utterances. Also like mentioned earlier, singers use it to get lower. There are many reasons to do it, and it’s not just women doing it. And a public service announcement that I have is that it is not harmful to do. Because we often hear people pathologize it, and this goes back a long way where speech-language pathologists actually did once think it was harmful. But with science comes new discoveries, and we’ve all learned that actually it’s not harmful. I am NOT gonna die a premature death because of all the vocal frying I do. It’s not harmful.
CARRIE: Oh speaking of this, do we know why Adele has vocal problems? Does she fry?
MEGAN: I don’t know. She goes very low.
CARRIE: Oh hmm. So singers can hurt their vocal cords very easily, but usually speakers don’t.
MEGAN: Singers have coaches and stuff. I mean that’s your problem. You deal with it. But normal people are not gonna have problems with it. I feel like, with all of this said, it’s not harmful. There are lots of reasons why people use it, and in some cases it’s required by the language. I think we really need to shift the conversation to not like, “women should stop using it”, but you need to change the way you think about it. Because, if it’s true that employers interviewing people are like, “I don’t like that this person has vocal fry”, you need to be the one that changes. We don’t – we shouldn’t have to be the one that gets rid of the vocal fry.
CARRIE: Also, that means that you’re probably only noticing it in women, and that means you’re only going to not be hiring women. So yay, diversity?
MEGAN: Right, exactly. And again, it could be a woman that’s hiring that hates it. So it’s all patriarchy. It’s coming from the same problem. It’s coming from the same institution. We need to be – like everything in the world – we really need to be combating the institution that has led to our hatred of vocal fry, that is made us notice it in women, and not the women themselves.
CARRIE: Exactly. Fight the power! Okay, if you found this interesting, our next podcast episode is going to be on swearing.
MEGAN: Yes. Because there wasn’t enough swearing in this.
CARRIE: We barely swore!
MEGAN: I know. It’s almost safe for work.
CARRIE: Almost. Next time probably wouldn’t be. We’re gonna talk about why it’s useful, why sometimes it’s a good thing to swear, why it’s fun.
MEGAN: I’d also like to make a note that we really focused in on women and young women in ourselves using vocal fry. Again, this is called the Vocal Fries. We wanted to start off with something that we both do and that we are often discouraged for using. I want to note that we’ve kind of completely erased a lot of people that do use vocal fry in different ways and this could be something that we bring up again later on, like Chicano English actually. There’s a lot of interesting uses of vocal fry there, so we don’t mean to erase anyone or any manner of speaking and hopefully we will talk about these different ways of speaking later on in the podcast.
CARRIE: Yeah, in fact I saw that and I meant to bring that up and I completely forgot because that’s not my experience.
MEGAN: Right. I think we will talk about it later, because I grew up with Chicano English – my dad speaks Chicano English – and I’m wondering if maybe I picked it up from my father. CARRIE: It’s possible. It’s very possible.
MEGAN: So, these are things that we can talk about later. We hope to get to many different topics.
CARRIE: Yes, and feel free to let us know if there’s a topic that you want us to address.
MEGAN: Yes, there’s never purposeful erasure in this podcast. That’s what we want people to know.
CARRIE: Exactly. You can let us know by following us on Twitter or Facebook, Instagram or on our tumblr, and they’re all @vocalfriespod.
MEGAN: And fries is spelled f-r-i-e-s.
CARRIE: The normal way, the way you would expect.
MEGAN: I mean I may have spelled it incorrectly when I try to make our tumblr.
CARRIE: Maybe. Thanks everybody for listening, and I hope you enjoyed it.
MEGAN: See you later. Don’t be an asshole.
CARRIE: Don’t be an asshole.
MEGAN: Don’t be an asshole.
CARRIE: The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by Chris Ayers for Halftone Audio. Music by Nick Granum. You can find us on tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.