Monthly Archives: September 2014


The “vocal fry” continues to sizzle after two generations of its widespread spill into the vocal chords of two-thirds of American women. The Internet provides examples for the sound of vocal fry, aka “glottal fry” and by several other names. To paraphrase Shakespeare: a sound by any other name would smell as sour.

But not always. Katharine Hepburn and Mae West—each in her unique style—fried words so that the creaky, raspy sound seemed “natural” to them. It suited their individual personalities theatrically as well as it did in their off-stage public lives.

When I was fifteen, I saw and heard Katharine Hepburn in the first-run film, Woman of the Year, at New York’s top movie theater, Radio City Music Hall. I haven’t seen the film since then, but I think it was her first entrance that “set” her character when she greeted a number of people in several languages. Her vocal fry suggested sophistication in each of the characters she played. Mae West’s vocal fry suggested another kind of sophistication, a mock sex symbol, a role she played in each of her films. Mae West was from Brooklyn, Katharine Hepburn from Connecticut. Each of them fried her words in a frying pan that differed from the other’s pan.

One of the principal reasons provided for the origin of vocal fry is that its use lends authority to a female speaker because its lower register suggests authority as it allegedly does for most males who naturally have a lower vocal range. Well…that may be true for Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, and Ethel Barrymore (to name a few), but a forced lower register without their enhanced vocal pyrotechnics and characterizations has a harsh, mechanical sound that cracks granite.

I once had a child ask me what life was like “in the olden days.” I share her expression with you because it brought a smile to my face. In the olden days, I was taught that genders have three defining characteristics: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The last of these, of course, refers to a consciously designed appearance of being male or female, e.g., one’s hairstyle and dress. Perhaps somewhat subjective is the fact that dresses on men look awkward, but slacks on women don’t, and can even be attractive. Yet, the slacks are not cut exactly as pants are cut so as to suit the feminine biological form. Significantly, Mae West’s costumes were virtually a parody of the “feminine mystique”; on the other hand, Katharine Hepburn wore “pants.” Their dress and vocal fry ‘suited’ their public image onstage and offstage. Not so for the average woman, in or out of the business world, e.g., Hillary Clinton who looks much better in a dress than she does in a suit.

Vocal fry is not new, but I remember when the current epidemic began at the beginning of this century. At that time, many women wore business suits and forced their voices to a lower register, especially at the end of sentences where the last word or two sounded like a pneumatic drill cutting though lonsdaleite. It still does. How sad that the “feminist movement” included a disinclination to basic feminine characteristics. Unfortunately, the guttural vibrations of vocal fry still hammer our ears and threaten to do so for at least one generation more.

Two-out-of-three American teenage girls fry words. All kinds of justifications are offered by speech experts and sociologists in defense of the young ladies’ speech patterns. So, we can expect at least another generation of intolerable vocal sounds. Fads are usually short-lived, but since language is passed from one generation to another, there’s no telling when the epidemic will end.

When panels of two or three women speak on TV, I am actually compelled to change the channel. I cringe when I hear the spokeswoman for the State Department. Her voice sounds like a pneumatic drill carving a hole through a mountain of solid granite. She is not alone.

I miss the natural sound of the average female voice. When I hear that one-out-of-three voices, I feel that fresh oil has been poured into the sooty, sizzling frying pan. Ladies, please listen to your voices, and consider bringing back the natural female voice!

One thing more. An article online asked readers what they thought caused vocal fry to be extensively spoken on America’s Pacific west coast. An anonymous reader provided a ’cause’ as valid as any other. He wrote: Maybe it has something to do with getting hit by big waves again and again.

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Predictable Pattern

When physical confrontations between policemen and young black men result in injury or death, the American public and media light up at a near 24/7 intensity.

Initial reports of an incident are repeated and expanded at a minute-by-minute pace; video tapes of the scene and photos of the injured or dead are frequently on the television screen; commentators, witnesses, and celebrity activists are interviewed and subsequently repeatedly quoted; protest marches and looting erupt.

Ironically, incidences that lead to severe injury or death are the very worst to submit as examples of white policemen harassing young black males. Even when an incident begins with harassment, there may be a point of no return when real or perceived police harassment escalates to a matter of life-and-death. At and beyond that point, harassment ceases to be a matter of skin color or prejudicial hostility.

The confrontation suddenly becomes primordial.

I believe that’s what happened in Ferguson, St. Louis when Michael Brown allegedly and most likely rushed toward the policeman. If I’m correct about this, the often-emphasized description of the policeman’s firing of “six shots at an unarmed man” is not the “cold blooded” and “pre-meditated murder” it’s often purported to be.

Every man has an instinct that tells him the most likely outcome of a physical encounter with someone who is younger and stronger than he is—that critical assessment is all the more accurate when made by a professional policeman. Yes, Michael was unarmed, a fact that is stressed when the incident is reported. But Michael’s youth and strength provided him with an overwhelming advantage over the policeman if they were to engage in a street fight. The policeman must have instinctively known that.

To stretch my assumptions a bit further, it’s reasonable to assume that having failed to stop the (allegedly onrushing) teenager with four rapid shots to his right arm, the policeman then made a split-second decision to shoot Michael with two more bullets with the very likely intention of killing a man who was intent on beating him to severe bodily harm or death.

I am not saying that this is what happened. Assumptions, of course, are not facts unless and until they’re proved to be true. But I’ve deliberately posited alternative interpretations to the largely irresponsible descriptions of the incident made by the media and other biased parties. My assumptions are much more likely to be true than their often-repeated description of “premeditated, cold-blooded murder.” The incident was certainly neither premeditated nor cold-blooded. Out of context, emphasizing the fact that six shots were fired implies hatred, not self-defense.

Whatever else prompted the officer to shoot Mr. Brown at that moment of no return, it wasn’t color. That fact occurred to me long before I saw surveillance tape that clearly shows that Michael Brown was a bully. I’m sure that whether or not the policeman knew that Mr. Brown was a bully did not influence him to shoot the teenager, as has been suggested. Of course Michael Brown should not have been killed because he was a bully, but neither should we expect a policeman to be severely injured or killed rather than use his gun. Whatever else may be true about that tragic point of no return, the instinct of self-preservation always instinctively overrides contemplation (see my article, Justice, Prejudice, and Testosterone, April 9, 2012).

What is particularly disturbing about the Ferguson incident is that whatever happens at the trial, a jury will in effect be asked to make a choice between a verdict of guilty even if its collective conscience silently believes the officer is innocent of murder, or genuinely find him innocent and face the aftermath of a verdict that is sure to spark riots, great property damage, multiple injuries, and death.

Many African Americans claim that they are subject to police harassment. I take them at their word. Harassment is contemptible and must be comprehensively and legally addressed in all its forms no matter how subtle. It should be dealt with as seriously as sexual harassment is dealt. However, the Brown family tragedy will be compounded if a case of self-defense is mistaken or slanted to be one of harassment.

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