Mind your language

Creaky voice

18 February 2016

3:00 PM

18 February 2016

3:00 PM

My husband, not surprisingly, finds it extremely annoying. It, in this instance, is the use by women of creaky voice. If you don’t recognise the trend immediately imagine a youngish woman (not me) finishing a sentence with the phrase ‘really shiny leather’ and creaking, like a door, as she says the vowels.

The trait is also known as vocal fry, as if it were produced by a chip-fryer. It is a feminine characteristic by a proportion of two to one. Reese Witherspoon was heard doing it to the phrase ‘truly heinous angora sweater’ in the film Legally Blonde as long ago as 2001. Recently I’ve heard Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour doing it.

Why do we women do it? If it’s a fashion, is it smart or downmarket? In a survey from 2010, American college students identified users of creaky voice as urban, upwardly mobile and professionally oriented. But a study in 2012 found that women using creaky voice were viewed as less competent, less trustworthy, less attractive and less employable.

There’s a pleasing American discussion of the subject on a podcast called Lexicon Valley, put out on 3 January 2013, which is easy to find online. On it, the host Mike Vuolo drew attention to the use of different voices that change the meaning of a phrase like get out. Get out said with a breathy voice conveys a sense of feigned incredulity, of the kind we enjoy using in friendly conversation. With a creaky voice it conveys real incredulity. With a normal or ‘modal’ voice, get out just means ‘Leave now.’

An anti-feminist perspective of creaking comes from sociolinguists who note that both men and women creak at the same low absolute pitch. This, they conclude, means that women, consciously or unconsciously, creak to sound more like men.

From a British perspective I fear that young women’s creak is a development of some ‘Estuary English’ elements of the speech used by Vicki Pollard. I know that Vicki comes from Bristol (and embodies a vicious attack on vulnerable young people), but where Vicki used to elongate the two last vowels of a phrase such as ‘I would so never do that’, her younger schoolmates are now creaking them.

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