There's a reason that every generation is displeased with the speech patterns and patois of the generation that follows. Language is a living thing that's constantly morphing and evolving. If you get left behind or fail to learn popular slang and speech patterns of today, it becomes far easier for others to peg you as out of touch or irrelevant, which, hell, is understandably scary. It's like when you see two people talking in a language that you don't understand and you know that they're talking about you — just by having a conversation, they have made you feel stupid and powerless.
No one wants to feel that way. No one wants to feel like a fossil, no one wants to feel pointless, so rather than roll with the times, speakers will often place a hierarchy on language that sets a standard for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. The problem with this is that the standard for proper/improper language is absolutely arbitrary. What's standard English today isn't what was standard English 60 years ago. What was standard English 60 years ago isn't what was standard English 200 years ago and this goes all the way back to the first time an Anglo wanted to do it with a Saxon, but wasn't quite sure how to ask about it.
Some people, people like Slate Lexicon Valley podcaster and NPR On the Media host Bob Garfield, just can't get past this though, especially when it comes to the way young people, particularly young women, are speaking these days. "It's almost exclusively among women and young women at that — and girls," he said on a recent episode of Lexicon Valley. "At some point, as they utter a sentence or phrase, somewhere between half way and the very end of the phrase, something happens to their voice as if they have a catch in their throat."
What Garfield is describing is the vocal fry, a glottal rattle which makes the voice sound a bit like a creaking door. Let me tell you, Garfield fucking hates the vocal fry. "I want the oil to stop frying," he says. "I want someone to wave a magic wand over a significant portion of the American public and have the frying come to an end."
Garfield's condescension towards a major portion of the America's young people — not young men, mind you, just women — is glaring. As fellow Slate contributor Amanda Hess points out:
For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences. This "Valley Girl lift," as Hofstra fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich maligns it, "reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one's opinions and a radical uncertainty about one's place in the world." Raising our voices makes women sound like "an empty-headed clotheshorse for whom the mall represents the height of culture," she writes.
So we're wrong when we raise our voices, and we're wrong when we lower them. (Lest you think Garfield's fix to the vocal fry "problem" is that we all just revert back to Valleyspeak-that register also strikes him as "frightful," and he repeatedly mocks both voices throughout the podcast.) Just as Valley Girls are perceived as overly feminine and submissive, Creaky Girls may be seen as overly masculine and derisive. Lexicon Valley co-host Mike Vuolo notes that a woman's voice is, on average, an octave higher than a man's. Lowering into a gravelly creak puts men and women on the same wavelength. "Vulgar!"
Hess also notes an interesting age divide when it comes to the vocal fry. While people like Garfield tend to think that the inflection makes women sound bored, obnoxious and mindless, college aged students, after listening to a recording of a woman who spoke with a vocal fry, determined that the speaker was "professional," "urban," "looking for her career," "not yet a professional, but on her way there" and that the affectation was "a prestigious characteristic of contemporary female speech."
The conversation surrounding the vocal fry and sexism reminds me slightly of the debate that continues to rage around the language of the Zora Neale Hurston classic "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Written in phonetic slang, the novel has been equally lauded and condemned for its use of a language and rejection of "proper English." But who determines proper English? Historically, it's people like Garfield. Older. Male. Educated. White. While, unlike the criticism aimed at "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Garfield's war against the vocal fry has little to do with race or class, it is certainly linked to agism and sexism. Young men surely have their own share of vocal ticks and affectations, but none of them seem to have Garfield as worked up as young women dropping an "ehhh" into the end of their sentences.
Unfortunately for him, women tend to set vocal trends. Today, more and more men tend to speak with a Valley Girl lift, which means that, in the coming years, men, too, will likely adapt the vocal fry. What can you do? It's a brave new — ehhhh — world.
Image via Elena Kharichkina/Shutterstock.