Could The Vocal Fry Give Women More Authority At Work? Ask Jill Abramson (Or Kim Kardashian)

According to a fascinating new piece in The New York Times, the Kardashians may have an even bigger impact on culture than we thought. Or rather girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang (for example Valley Girl speak) because it actually catches on. “A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” According to new research, young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize (but I doubt the Kardashians no what they are doing.) The dialect of young girls impacts everyone including the way women talk at work because they can be used as communication tools.

According to research from Long Island University,  published in The Journal of Voice, professors said they found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.” Vocal fry, or glottalization, is a low, staccato vibration during speech, produced by a slow fluttering of the vocal cords. Since the 1960s, vocal fry has been recognized as the lowest of the three vocal registers, which also include falsetto and modal—the usual speaking register. Speakers creak differently according to their gender, although whether it is more common in males or females varies among languages. In American English, anecdotal reports suggest that the behavior is much more common in women. (In British English, the pattern is the opposite.) Historically, continual use of vocal fry was classified as part of a voice disorder that was believed to lead to vocal cord damage. However, in recent years, researchers have noted occasional use of the creak in speakers with normal voice quality. A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence. Overall, two-thirds of the women used creaky voice, the authors found, particularly at the end of sentences, where it can be used as a sort of linguistic marker. Some frequent users of the “vocal fry” include Mae West, Maya Rudolph, Kim Kardashian and Zooey Deschanel. Kesha and Britney Spears also use it when they sing. But the most perfect example of the vocal fry, pointed out by Gawker, is New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson.

“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.” Hmm. Power tools for building relationships? That sounds like something that would be very useful in a professional setting. And they definitely do. Senior CNBC Editor John Carney claims that Wall Street Women should actually get the credit for the vocal fry. “It’s ubiquitous among senior and mid-level women, and less common with junior staff,” he wrote. He pointed out many examples in this recruitment video for Deutsche Bank. The first and second speaker are excellent examples of the Vocal Fry.

But what is the tool a creaky voice is conveying? I mean, why would it have caught on in such high-powered circles like say the top power tier of The New York Times. Despite its seeming prevalence in women, creaky voice has historically been associated with men — and authority. Ikuko Patricia Yuasa at the University of Iowa, who published a study in the journal American Speech last fall that looked at the use of creaky voice in American women, cites past studies that have linked creaky voice to men and higher status; some researchers in the 1980s even deemed it “hyper-masculine” and a “robust marker of male speech.” Perhaps that same semblance of authority can explain why young, college-bound women seem to be employing the creak. Yuasa posited that it could be a way to compete with men by taking advantage of the attributes associated with a lower-pitched voice. “Creaky voice may provide a growing number of American women with a way to project an image of accomplishment,” Yuasa wrote in her 2010 study, “while retaining female desirability.”

So maybe we all need to get a little bit croakier if we want to be taken more seriously. I could say we should all try to talk more like Kim Kardashian but then I would have to kill myself. Instead try to be more like Jill Abramson (watch the video of her below to get a good sound bite.) Jill is an extremely smart and talented woman but it is her voice that often gets her the most attention. Ken Auletta wrote in his New Yorker piece “Changing Times: Jill Abramson takes charge of the Gray Lady“:

“Inside the newsroom, her schoolteacherlike way of elongating words and drawing out the last word of each sentence is a subject of endless conversation and expert mimicry. When she appeared on television after her appointment as executive editor, the blogger Ben Trawick-Smith wrote, “Speech pathologists and phoneticians, knock yourself out: what’s going on with Abramson’s speech?” He was deluged with responses. One speculated that, like a politician, she had trained herself to limit the space between sentences so that it would be hard to interrupt her; another said she had probably acquired the accent in an attempt to not sound too New York while she was an undergraduate at Harvard. The writer Amy Wilentz, a college roommate of Abramson’s, has said that the accent probably has something to do with trying to sound a bit like Bob Dylan.”

Sounding more authoritative and getting interrupted less. Nothing wrong with that. This is also means I get to say

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