Friday 25 November 2016

On vocal fry

The 2016 Saltire Poetry Prize (about which I blogged yesterday) was awarded last night to the excellent Kathleen Jamie for The Bonniest Companie, which won not only that individual category but was also the competition's overall winner - the Scottish Book of the Year. Congratulations to her. It's especially gratifying to see a poetry collection winning a big prize open to fiction, biography and other writing. I'll pick up a copy of The Bonniest Companie as soon as I can. I remember admiring her collection The Queen of Sheba when it came out - improbably - twenty years ago. You can listen to her reading some of her work here.

Now back to business. Here's the fourth of my blogs originally written for the Times Literary Supplement,  hereunder thriftily recycled. It's about a current and near-ubiquitous vocal trait that seems to be shared by most anglophone women under thirty.

On vocal fry

If you don't admire the American animated cartoon series Adventure Time it's almost certainly because you haven't seen it yet. In the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, Jake (a protean dog) and Finn (a boisterous boy) share a treehouse from which they set out on pocket odysseys, sometimes involving the monstrous Lemongrab, a maniacal dictator whose catch phrase is a shrieked "Unacceptable!" It's wildly original with more wit, intelligence and flair packed into each eleven-minute episode than you'll find in a clutch of modern novels. That the two leading characters share their names with the protagonists of Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (1954) is - perhaps unintentionally - part of its great charm.
One of many memorable minor characters is the shallow and self-absorbed Lumpy Space Princess, an airborne purple blob sporting a tiara. Her voice combines a strangulated babble of high-rising terminals (i.e. the upward inflection? At the end of declarative statements?) with a now-commonplace linguistic trait originating in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and known as “vocal fry” or, variously, as “pulse register”, “laryngealisation”, “pulse phonation”, “creak”, “popcorning”, “glottal fry”, “glottal rattle”, “glottal scrape” and “strohbass”. 
Vocal fry is produced when the airflow through the glottis is very slow and the vocal cords vibrate irregularly, about two octaves lower than the frequency of normal vocalization. It usually occurs at the end of a long utterance. It seems  impossible to reproduce here but you can hear it performed (and amusingly deconstructed) in this video by a droll American vlogger called Abby Normal
Normal suggests that one aim of vocal fry is to express affiliation with a hypothetical elite by adopting a cool, detached and “unimpressed” register, suggesting a jaded cultural palate and a snooty if unfounded omniscience. It has been further suggested that vocal fry is an attempt to add gravitas by adopting a deeper, more “masculine” register. (This is nothing new to those of us who recall the extraordinary recalibration of Margaret Thatcher's range.)
This creaky vocalization has been on the rise among British speakers for some time now, especially, on radio programmes involving youngish contributors acting in a critical capacity, or speaking as a representative of some body or enterprise. It can be difficult to understand speech acts in which the real emotional or intellectual content is veiled by an aura of ennui.
A challenge to contemporary authors is to represent linguistic phenomena such as this in written form. Punctuation and a few long-established tropes aside (CAPITALS for shouting, italics for emphasis, an unspacedstreamofwords suggesting breathless excitement), mainstream writers haven't gone far in the search for new ways of representing speech. Authentic utterance is full of repetition, redundancy and hesitation – “to ‘er’ is human”, as the poet Michael Rosen says. These are usually removed from otherwise “naturalistic” dialogue and from (say) transcribed interviews for the simple reason that they would drive the reader nuts.

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