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Life beyond style

Earlier this month, a salty grandma wrote to the Washington Post complaining about her granddaughter’s voice. The poor eight-year-old in question has a teacher “who presents with a shrill vocal fry,” grandma wrote. “Unfortunately, my granddaughter is now emulating her teacher’s voice and, not only has her beautiful singing voice suffered, it’s distressing to me that her strong, clear speaking voice may be forever lost.”

Vocal fry and upspeak are ways of speaking that have been in existence for a long time, but mass awareness of them only came about fairly recently thanks to persistent offenders like Kim Kardashian.

Both techniques—particularly the croaky, graveled emissions of vocal fry—are the subject of much discussion online. Aggrieved radio-listeners and TV-watchers unite on Reddit and social media to show their disdain for celebrities and news reporters using them. But others, however, find them sexy.

If you don’t know anything about vocal fry or upspeak, you’ve probably never even noticed somebody doing it. So, what are they all about? Are they really so irritating?

What Exactly Are Vocal Fry and Upspeak?

While they often run together, vocal fry and upspeak are not to be confused. Fry is like that low, croaky voice you have when you’re sick. It occurs when you drop to your lowest register and speak below 70 Hz, which is quiet. You’re not pushing enough air through your vocal cords to maintain regular “glottal” vibrations, so you get fry.

It’s been around for a while. In 1964, fry helped British gentlemen convey their superior social standing. And in 1998, Britney Spears fried almost every line in “Baby One More Time“. More latterly, however, it’s undoubtedly the dominion of the Kardashians.

Upspeak, or Valleyspeak as it’s sometimes called, on the other hand, is when you end a declarative sentence in a raised tone. It makes what was once a statement (“We’re having steak for dinner”) sound eerily like a question (“… for dinner?”). Take, for example, Emilia Clarke’s alter ego, Callie from the Valley, who likes to upspeak and fry and, like, loves Clueless.

Think Guys Don’t Fry?

Men actually fry more than women, but in a different way. Women use fry at the ends of sentences, while men tend to drop in and out of the low, husky register throughout their speech. This is perhaps because men’s voices are lower and can descend into fry more easily, whereas women must dip further into their range.

If the Kardashians are kweens of fry, then Lil Wayne is thy king. But he’s not the only one. A quick YouTube search through artist interviews reveals A$AP Rocky (see above), Future and Tyler, The Creator all frying their hearts out. There’s even a clip of Kendrick Lamar and Kobe Bryant practically having a fry-off competition.

Ira Glass, of the This American Life podcast, also recently investigated the phenomenon (he himself uses vocal fry throughout the episode) after getting a lot of hate mail about the voices of young women on the show’s staff.

Upspeak, meanwhile, does seem far less common among men than women. At least a cursory search for big names in popular culture using the technique revealed very little, aside from the above clip of George W. Bush.

Male upspeak is typically associated with what gets labelled as “gay voice.” In his 2014 film Do I Sound Gay?, David Thorpe pondered why he and his companions sounded like “a bunch of braying ninnies.” Thorpe’s speech pathologist, Susan Sankin, identified upspeak as one of the “gay voice” markers.

Why Do We Fry and Upspeak?

It’s a contagious habit. We’ve heard others doing it, and now we can’t stop doing it. According to the NYTimes, you can thank (or not) women for pioneering such trends. “As Paris is to fashion, …so are young women to linguistic innovation,” it wrote.

In the 1970s, women used upspeak to seem agreeable. Their upwards lilt softened a statement; offering rather than imposing an idea. In today’s modern times, you might also upspeak aggressively to make a point, like: “This Saturday it’s my birthday? And we’re going to dinner?”

Vocal fry, on the other hand, we probably developed in order to sound more authoritative. A lower voice (in men or women) suggests strength and dominance. Also, we might fry if we’re relaxed or disinterested, or trying to appear so.

Setting and required volume also factor in. People who fry just about everything in a quiet, one-on-one situation, can usually speak sans fry in a loud setting. Compare, for example, A$AP Rocky speaking with a fan at a festival to almost every up-close-and-personal interview with him.

Fry, as opposed to upspeak, can be due to an actual disorder. Someone with an abnormally functioning larynx may be unable to control their fry. Some Reddit users think that Lil Wayne’s fondness for Sizzurp is the cause of his permanent growl.

In music, fry is a creative decision too. Chance the Rapper’s “Mixtape” is one example. It communicates emotion, and is typically used in pop, and by women more than men. We mentioned Britney earlier, but see also Sia’s “Breathe Me“.

Should I Do It Too?

Jamie McCarthy / WireImage / Getty Images

Well, some people (especially old men) find fry and upspeak annoying. Consider that this might include your boss. After journalist Jessica Grose was criticized for her upspeak and “sing-songy” intonation, she modified the way she spoke. But the “new her” wasn’t as endearing to sources, she found. People would rather spill secrets to sweet, energetic, twelve-year-old Jess, than to an authoritative and “emotionally blunted” adult Jessica. So, now she dials it up or down as the situation requires.

Similarly, Thorpe, the director of Do I Sound Gay?, wanted to go back to speaking in a “normal, unremarkable way,” though he later decided there was nothing wrong with “sounding gay.” If the way you speak interferes with your personal or professional goals, then that’s when you should change.

Here are some things to consider:

Upspeak

1. By turning a declaration into a question, you’re potentially creating a lower standing in relation to the other party, and dependency on them.
2. You’ll sound young, which isn’t always a good thing.
3. You may sound unsure, which mightn’t be what you’re going for. One columnist called male upspeak “the scariest trend since man-leggings” and begged with men to stop because no one wants to hear: “I want to fuck you?”

Vocal Fry

1. Men, you can basically fry all you want and no one cares.
2. Women, you may be seen as “less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hireable”, according to this study.
3. Fry probably doesn’t damage your voice permanently, but more evidence is required to say for sure.

Next up; here’s why Warren Buffett should be your role model.

  • Main & Featured Image: PG / Bauer-Griffin / GC Images
Words by Claudia Gillies

Unlike everyone else in Berlin, Claudia dreams of making it as an artist. She’s happiest lost, so she’s often happy.

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