Frying with words

I’ve only recently discovered a talent that I never suspected I had -I didn’t even know it had a name, to tell the truth. Still, despite occasionally dipping my toe in it, I’m not sure I like the name -or, at least in my case, what it implies.

Of course, once you surrender to Retirement -once you accept the reduced fare on public transit- you have to expect unexpected consequences. In my case, it was a type of social isolation: I no longer needed to talk my way through the day. In fact, unless push came to shove, I didn’t even need to talk. I could get by on almost any bus with a salutary nod, or a well-timed eyebrow flick. Or, should the occasion require a more personal engagement, a pleasant smile coupled with a merry twinkle from whatever part of my face I felt I hadn’t yet used.

You know, I suppose we forget how much we used to play with our voices at work. Even though I tried to listen more than speak in those days, I find that it’s already starting to rust; my voice needs a little oil from time to time nowadays. I only considered it a trifle embarrassing and didn’t give it much thought, until one day Janice commented on it as we greeted each other while passing on the sidewalk.

“Nice creak, G… Been working on it since I last saw you?” The mocking expression on her face made me suspect the benignity of her comment -she had never been noted for small talk.

I have to admit I was puzzled. “Creak?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with a mischievous smile creeping slowly onto her lips. “It’s all the rage, now.” She reached over and touched my sleeve, pretending to be naughty. “Especially with the younger crowd…” Then she studied my expression as if she’d caught me in flagrante delicto, or something, and noticed the bewildered look on my usually unguarded face. “Creak!” She said the word slowly, like English was not my native language. “It’s when you make your voice low pitched and sort of sandpapery.”

She stared at me for a moment to see if she was getting through. “Young people use it to annoy anybody over forty… and, I suspect, because they think it adds some authority to their voice.” A wry smile replaced the mischievous one. “Guys do it more often, but I think it’s actually regarded as nongendered nowadays. Something both sides can use to gain credibility.”

“Uhmm…” I didn’t know how to reply for a moment. “I’m pretty sure mine is because I don’t get a chance to talk as often since I retired… Use it or lose it kind of thing…” I don’t know why I added that. But I shrugged politely in a way I hoped would indicate my innocence. “I… I’ve never heard that expression before…”

Suddenly her professor face appeared, and I realized she was going to use the opportunity to relive her former occupation. “Well, the more academic term is ‘vocal fry’ but…”

‘Fry?” I interrupted. “Why would they call it a ‘fry’?”

That silenced her, and her eyes narrowed for a moment as they pecked at my cheeks. Nothing stops a monologue quite like asking the speaker to explain their words. Then, she decided to ignore my interruption and rolled her eyes as if my question was just silly. “It just is,” she continued irritably -she never liked to be interrupted. “I mean, they had to call it something, G,” she said, shaking her head at the shallowness of the draught my vocabulary was floating in.

“Anyway,” she continued, trying to resume control, “A ‘vocal fry’ is when you drop the pitch of your voice and slow the air coming through the…” She paused for a moment, searching for the appropriate word. “…the voice box, so it sort of comes out all gravelly…” Anatomy clearly wasn’t part of the job description for her tenure in the department of Ancient English Literature at the university.

I smiled innocently at her struggle. “And why would that be desirable?”

Janice never skipped a beat. “Because the users are mostly young and have found a way to annoy us.” Her whole face furrowed as she said that and I gathered that age was a sore point with her.

I creased my own brow in a brief imitation of hers -sometimes Janice exhibits a sense of humour, but usually only by mistake. “And did my ‘fry’ annoy you…?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.

Her eyes hovered around my head looking for a place to land at first. Then, changing their minds, flew back to home base. “Not if you had no idea what you were doing,” she said, and strode off as if she’d simply bumped into a recalcitrant student on the sidewalk.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home was Google ‘vocal fry’. I found a mercifully short article in an online publication, The Conversation, that seemed to condense the subject enough to hold my attention.

Written by Nicole Hildebrand-Edgar, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, at York University, it was immediately clear that she was describing my voice: ‘Have you noticed that your teenager’s voice sounds unnaturally low and gravelly, like a door on rusty hinges, or a quacking duck?’ The ‘duck’ thing put me off a little, but I realized it was probably a clickbait to intrigue those who’d just happened upon the article by mistake.

At first, I was reassured. ‘[Creaking] happens to most of our voices quite regularly, especially when we finish speaking and our voices drop in pitch. But what linguists call “creak” can also be drawn out, or occur over an entire sentence.’ For some reason we don’t notice it as much when men use it, but when young women do it, they seem to be accused of everything from ‘mindless affectation’ to emulation of celebrities, like Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian and Zooey Deschanel -whoever they are.

Creaky voice was a tool that these individuals used to establish authority as knowledge-holders in situations where they did not feel comfortable sharing knowledge. Linguistics professor Erez Levon has suggested that there is a fundamental meaning association between creaky voice and suppressed emotion. Creaky voice has the potential to indicate a whole field of related meanings, such as non-aggression, toughness, authority or masculinity.

It did make me wonder about my body politics for a while, though. For example, ‘Feminist commentators have offered various theories. Some say that by using a creaky voice, women are suppressing their own authority. On the opposite end, others say the hand-wringing about creaky voice is just another case of society policing women’s voices instead of listening to them.’ I had no idea I had been crossing a line.

But I did learn a bit about the process. ‘The vibration of our vocal folds produce our voices. When the vocal folds are long, thin and taut, they vibrate faster and create a higher pitch. When they are short, thick and relaxed, they vibrate slower, creating a lower pitch. During creaky voice, the vocal folds are so short, thick and relaxed that regular vibration cannot occur. Air cannot pass through them at a regular rate, but comes out in short bursts. You can hear these individual “pulses” of air escaping through the folds, like the sound of a popcorn kernel popping. The result is a very low-pitched, monotone and rough-sounding voice.’

And, ‘researchers have noted its use can add expressiveness to a performance or to mark certain statements as parenthetical, much like you would put parentheses around certain information in writing.’

I intend to point that out next time I see Janice. I probably won’t mention the duck, though.


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