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.