What’s a Young Voice Anyway? Vocal Fry is Hip But Unintelligible

This is the third and final post in the short series on why some voices are difficult to hear, even with hearing aids. The first two posts considered aging effects on voicing and some exercises to mitigate those effects. Today’s post veers in a different direction – to voicing and voicing aberrations among the young.

You’d think Young Voices were just the inverse of Old Voices and that may be the case for starters, but it’s more complicated than that.  Let’s start by stating a clinical impression: few if any people over 50 think young people speak well.  

That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those with hearing loss, who frequently comment that young people talk too loud, too fast, they mumble, etc. We’ve been addressing this issue in the last two posts on voicing as we age.


Fried Speech


Yes, older people with or without hearing loss all generally agree that young people, especially females, are difficult to understand.  But, do any of these people complain that Young People’s voices are frying?  No, not really, yet this is the newest trend in voices and explains a lot about their unintelligibility. 

Vocal fry is a speech disorder, which doesn’t sound great. Or maybe it’s not a speech disorder, but a normal aspect of voicing that’s becoming more common. Whatever the linguists eventually decide about its origins and staying power, at least they agree that vocal fry is characterized by speech that is “creaky, rough, gutteral.”  

The popular view is that the voice style started with Britney Spears, Kesha, one of the many Kardashians, and others whose names may or may not ring a bell with older listeners. Whether they started it or just made it popular doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that they’ve taken it over the top and others seem to be adopting it in a trendy way.

If you want to hear vocal fry is, just click here for a youtube video that gives earfuls of Kim Kardashian at her fryin’ best. Seriously, could you understand even one word of what Kim had to say?  Can you imagine conducting a meaningful, long conversation with someone that talks like that?


The Young, The Old, and The (Un)Intelligible


Before you answer those questions, it should go on the record that hearing aids aren’t going to fix Kim’s voice and make it intelligible to those with hearing loss.

Ironically, just as young people are frying their vocal folds, older people are exercising theirs to achieve what they remember Young speech used to sound like. Vocal frying is not part of what they remember, thank goodness, so their efforts are likely to produce more speech that is more intelligible for their peers.

Meantime, will young people keep frying?  Apparently so — according to Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, vocal fry is just one more sound change in speech. None of us talk the way people did 100 years ago. Vocal fry is just one more step in the evolution of how people talk. Dr Liberman further informs us that young people start these changes and females lead the crowd.  Young women tend to start talking in the new style about a half generation ahead of the guys.  

No wonder there are generation gaps — people literally cannot understand each other.

Audiologists do not have a solution to this conundrum, except to assure their patients that they are hearing well and those Young People are not speaking well.  It is possible that, armed with words like “vocal fry,” patients can impress and influence a few fryers into talking “old style,” just for the sake of intelligibility.


feature image from youtube

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