G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I’d previously commented on “vocal fry” in young women and offered the tongue-in-cheek comment that this was probably due to their higher levels of testosterone. By that, I simply meant that young women are trying to mimic men. This makes sense when we consider women’s increased direct competition for economic and political resources rather than the tactics that worked better for women in the past i.e. demure and soft voices that women used to procure resources indirectly through men. I would have been more correct in saying that increased testosterone levels in modern women are correlated with lowered vocal registers and vocal fry.
Related to this, it is widely known that female news casters lower their voices – or, maybe, low-voiced women self-select – in order to sound more confident and mature. Margaret Thatcher was known to have taken classes to lower her voice to fit in as Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and research has shown that voters prefer deeper voices.
So maybe my off-the-cuff hypothesis wasn’t far off the mark/ From Douglas Quenqua at the New York Times:
Vocal fry, also known as creaky voice, has a long history with English speakers. Dr. Crystal, the British linguist, cited it as far back as 1964 as a way for British men to denote their superior social standing. In the United States, it has seemingly been gaining popularity among women since at least 2003, when Dr. Fought, the Pitzer College linguist, detected it among the female speakers of a Chicano dialect in California.
So what does the use of vocal fry denote? Like uptalk, women use it for a variety of purposes. Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, called it a natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.
The article provides links to a couple of examples – SNL’s Maya Rudolph mimicing Maya Angelou and Mae West’s famous line: ”why don’t you come up sometime and see me.” Both dominant women in their own ways, especially Mae West who is the suitor here:
Quenqua cites studies which hypothesize that young women’s vocal patterns lead the vocal patterns of the rest of society. The young understandably lead the old, but young women also lead young men by up to half a generation. The speculation here is that girls and young women are more emotionally expressive and therefore their speech patterns have a greater tendency to influence everyone else. The common “Valley Girl” manner of speech – with the ‘likes’ and the lilting, dangling question-commands – is one example:
“Like” and uptalk often go hand in hand. Several studies have shown that uptalk can be used for any number of purposes, even to dominate a listener. In 1991, Cynthia McLemore, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday? And everyone needs to be there?”)
Dr. Eckert of Stanford recalled a study by one of her students, a woman who worked at a Jamba Juice and tracked instances of uptalking customers. She found that by far the most common uptalkers were fathers of young women. For them, it was “a way of showing themselves to be friendly and not asserting power in the situation,” she said.
In other words, these speech patterns are passive-aggressive. When I asked my girlfriend, who was in a sorority, what she thinks of this, she characterized the young women who speak in this manner as “insecure” and “bitchy”. Which brings up another point. Feminists often complain about that assertive career women are labeled as bitches. The feminists assert that this is overt sexism, but I think that they are mislabeling insecure assertiveness – insofar as that can exist. And why wouldn’t women feel somewhat insecure on a primal level? Physical size and other dominance cues (voice depth, which touches back on vocal fry) surely have a subconscious impact on female managers/executives’ reactions. Bitches are women who are perceived to be asserting themselves from a place of insecurity. They use passive-aggressive language and tactics whereas an assertive man elicits a response more out of a primal fear – maybe not fear of death or injury but fear of running afoul of the Big Man.
All of this opens up a nice research question: do women use different vocal registers when interacting with men versus women?