The XX Factor

“Old Fart” Responds to the Great Vocal Fry Outcry of 2013

I hate women.

Or so I am recently informed. This verdict was delivered in the wake of a Slate podcast Mike Vuolo and I did, Lexicon Valley Episode 24, about the so-called “vocal fry.” That’s what linguists and speech pathologists call the affectation of intentionally creaking one’s voice, especially towards the ends of phrases.

Anyway, the experts say “creaking.” I say croaking. (It sounds like this.)

This is a mainly American phenomenon, which research shows to disproportionately reside among young women and teens. Like Valley Girl-speak and illogical upward inflection (“Jen and I went to the mall? And we saw this totally cute guy? And Jen’s all, ‘I gotta get to Abercrombie.’ And I’m, like, ‘Really?’”), vocal fry is a gathering epidemic. 

It’s unlike the Spanish Flu only in the narrow sense that it hasn’t killed anyone. However when you hear it enough you may want to kill yourself.

All affectations are annoying. On Slate’s Double X Gabfest, Hanna Rosin mentioned Madonna’s late-onset English accent, a comparison that works just fine for me. Imagine 50 million Madonnas. See? Suddenly waterboarding doesn’t seem so bad. Free speech has its merits, but didn’t Oliver Wendell Holmes say that your rights end where my anvil and stirrup begin?

And so I mentioned in the episode, sparing no adjective to express my scorn and visceral discomfort at listening to this human record scratch. The word “repulsive” came up.  Also “mindless.” And, in the midst of entertaining various linguistic theories as to the vocal fry’s provenance and psychology—which is what we were mainly talking about—I might have said that if women keep speaking this way we will achieve zero population growth. I might’ve.

So, funny thing: Typically, Lexicon Valley—which is, after all, about language, not football—enjoys about 50,000 downloads per show. At this writing, the number is in the neighborhood of 700,000. We, as they say, touched a nerve. Most of the countless commenters and tweeters thanked us for putting a name to the vocal tic they had themselves noticed and viscerally loathed. The word “cringe” came up a lot, and the praise was equally divided among all major sexes.

Alas, so was the outrage. A tiny but righteous minority turned the “insufferable” judgment against yours truly. By so turning my nose up at the vocal fry, I was a condescending, sexist, misogynist old man trying to deprive young women of their right to speak as they wish. Who am I to pluck the speech arrow from their (ahem) quiver?

Then the bloggers got busy, including Madeleine Davies in Jezebel (under the label “Sexism”) and Amanda Hess in Slate itself. The consensus is that I am a superannuated misogynist who disdains young women because they threaten my throne of power. “I suspect that the spread of ‘creaky voice’ makes Garfield so mad,” supposed Hess, “because it represents the downfall of his own mode of communication.”

That is some acrobatic suspecting. Downfall? Strictly speaking, someone else’s speech patterns are no threat to me; as my critics observe, I have one foot in the grave anyway. (“Old fart” is how Allison Benedikt phrased it on the Double X podcast.) Also, I don’t disdain young women; I have three children in that very demographic. They’re nice. I like them. And some of my best friends have ovaries. Perhaps what Hess meant to suspect was that I get mad at creaky voice because it makes my flesh crawl. So I guess she was in the ballpark.

Oh, mind you, I totally own up to the disdain and condescension charges. Those are dead on. I just don’t quite get why that’s supposed to shame me.

Looking down on things you don’t like—isn’t that what condescension is for?