Up a Creak

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We noticed it her second or third year of college.

When our daughter called home, it was definitely there, audible in phone calls. You worry about your kids, how college will change them. We passed the phone back and forth, heard all the updates—classes, friends, work, money. Then, after closing the call, we sat and looked at each other. Nothing prepared us for what was happening.

My wife said, “Did you hear it?”

I told her yes, I heard something.

“What’s going on?”

I couldn’t tell. This was, like, 2006? I wanted to reassure my wife, to say it was nothing, but I heard it, too. Sometimes it was obvious; other times it was clearly our daughter’s old voice. Clearly her. But in the end, we knew: this new thing was really there. At the ends of sentences, her voice trailed way, falling into a lower register, and then, just before silence and the taking of breath, there was a faint, prolonged scratchiness as the last syllable died away.

It was vocal fry, also known as creak.

The Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics describes it “as a very slow vibration of only one end of the vocal folds.” The more popular definition: “a glottal, creaking sound of lower-register speech oscillation.” Conventional wisdom is that creak is usually heard in the speech of young women, and it’s a very BIG DEAL. Or it’s not. It is described as both heartbreaking and harmless.

I was surprised recently to discover that I’ve caught the creak. I heard it a few nights ago. We were in the car, on our way to the Imperial, a taco joint in Ferndale. In town from New York, my son and his girl friend sat in the back seat of the car chatting, both of them clearly creaking out at the ends of their sentences.

“They’ve got great hot dogs at Imperial,” my son said. “You gonna have one, mom?”

She said no, she didn’t think so.

“Dad?”

“Yeah,” I said. Only it sounded like yeaaaaahh, like the end of the word was being pressed through a cheese grater.

When did that start? I wondered. Do I creak because my kids do? They’ve been out of the house for years. What’s going on?

Viruses sweep through our language, infecting us. Well, some of us.

Suddenly, for example, an expression like “go figure” pops up in everyone’s speech. These days people are actually saying BFF and LOL, out loud.

And the word “like”? We’re well into a like epidemic. It’s, like, expressive in a useful way. Like has also morphed into a verb of speech. (I’m like, Seriously, where did you get those shoes? And she’s, like, You’ll never even guess.) Like is handy, and annoying, and apparently it’s here to stay. Some people love like; many hate it. Most are probably like neutral.

Creak is also described as an epidemic. But it’s different. It’s not new lingo that will arrive, thrive, fade into cliche, and (we hope) eventually disappear. (Witness “think outside of the box,” on the same page with “at the end of the day,” trending downward; seriously, I hope they are.) Creak is a gradual and pervasive shift in intonation, and, like like, it appears to be here to stay.

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These things happen.

In the early 80’s, as a graduate student, I was in a poetry workshop at the University of Michigan. Once a week we each brought a poem we had written to class, distributed copies, read our work out loud, and heard it talked about by 10-12 classmates. Every session, at one end of the conference table, there sat two young women in the MFA program. They were both from East coast liberal arts colleges. They would say things like, “I’m not sure about the end of this poem? I think it’s unearned?” “Some of these line breaks bother me?” “There might be sexism, you know? in the poem’s reference to brown-skinned women?” It was my first encounter with uptalk.

Next thing I knew, I mean over the next few years, everyone was uptalking. Kids, both female and male, became addicted to the high rising terminal (HRT). Where our kids went to school, sentences often began with an HRT “actually.” As in: “Actually? I had pizza for dinner last night?” “Actually? I’m pretty good at math?” At the dinner table, when my wife and I heard our kids uptalking, we got right in their faces, so much that I know they started to hate us. “You’re uptalking,” we’d say when they were in mid-sentence at the kitchen table. They rolled their eyes. They repeated what they said in level-talk. Those interruptions were cruel and unusual. An attack on someone’s speech, particularly if it occurs when they are in mid-sentence, is rude, harsh, and deeply personal. It can be borderline abuse. But it seemed necessary to us.

One night I was telling my wife about something that happened at work. It was a good story. It mattered to me. Just as I was getting to the good part, she stopped me, in mid-sentence. “You’re uptalking,” she said.

I thought for a minute, playing back what I’d just said.

“Maybe just a little, but….”

“More than a little.”

“Okay, but…”

“I just thought you would want to know.”

“I do want to know,” I said. Whereas, really, I didn’t. Or I did. Just not then. I was trying to say something.

The trouble is, uptalk and creak can change the way we listen. It can interfere with how well we listen.

Kai Ryssdal, on his Marketplace broadcast, recently interviewed a Los Angeles couple, Rose and Warren Schwartz, who just opened a soft serve ice cream shop. I like ice cream. I like stories about plucky start-ups. This was a good story. What was striking throughout, though, was Rose’s creak. (She creaked; Warren did not.) I couldn’t wait for Rose to talk. Will she do it? I couldn’t wait for the tail end of her sentences, when her intonation dropped and her voice went to pieces. As I listened, I became keenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t really listening to what Rose was saying. Only to how she said it.

Naomi Wolf, writing for the Guardian, says that creak is heartbreaking. “It is because these young women are so empowered,” she observes, “that our culture assigned them a socially appropriate mannerism that is certain to tangle their steps and trivialise their important messages to the world.” Hold on. I have trouble with the “our culture assigned them” claim here, because it oversimplifies what we do with language and how we happen to do it, and how it shapes us. In addition, my ear tells me it’s not just women who are creaking and frying. Men do it too.

 

I do it (a little bit), my son does it (a little more). The other day I listened to Fareed Zakaria interview J.D. Vance, author of a new book called Hillbilly Elegy. Born in Ohio, raised in West Virginia, reared in a language community where creak is a body of water, not a linguistic oddity, Vance is now a Yale-educated lawyer who makes his living in finance, when he’s not joining Sunday morning “powerhouse roundtables” that explain the week’s news to audiences across the country. In the ten-minute interview, Vance couldn’t finish a sentence without frying.

 

Was he “assigned” the mannerism? Or did he just start talking that way because he occupies a certain linguistic universe?

Men, it is true, probably creak with impunity. In men a dropping register and glottal croaking is authoritative. (See/hear Noam Chomsky.) In a study conducted at UC-Berkeley, seven young men and seven young women were recorded saying, “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” in normal voice and in creaky voice. Next, 400 male and 400 female listeners reacted to the recorded voices. All the listeners preferred normal voice. Most of them found female creak more problematic, ranking those women “less trustworthy” than males with creaky voices.

“Young, urban women are the leaders of language change,” says Auburn Barron-Lutzross, a linguist at UC Berkeley. “So when something new happens [in female speech], people will become critical and maybe even disturbed and say, ‘That’s not how the language is supposed to sound!’ But it will continue to spread.”

Spoken English shouldn’t sound like that. Who’s most annoyed? Ira Glass says, “If people are having a problem with [creak and vocal fry], what it means is they’re old.” It also usually means they are male.

We order hot dogs at the Imperial, all of us but my wife, who is a purist and will only eat a grilled (not boiled) ballpark dog. It’s her loss. These are bacon-wrapped Sonoran dogs, “haute dogs,” a new trend getting traction in the US, an import from Mexico. They are spicy, complex flavor bombs that are radically reorienting wiener cuisine across the country.

It’s a warm summer night. The roll-up doors fronting Woodward Avenue are flung open. People are lined up outside waiting to get in. Our server, a thin young guy with his hair tied up in a man bun, swoops in and takes our order. Behind him, young urbans and families lean toward each other, eating, drinking, talking. I can’t tell if our server creaks. It’s too noisy. But it’s nice to think of mothers and their adolescent daughters, and dads and their adolescent boys, and the swarms of little kids stuffing tacos and dogs in their mouths, creaking and frying and producing a combined glottal rattle and roar.

“Good, Dad?” my son says. We tap dogs, making a non-verbal toast.

Yeaaaaaah,” I say. Good.

 

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