How Vocal Fry Works

What's the Fry?
Chaotic vocal cord flapping sounds painful, but don't fret.
Chaotic vocal cord flapping sounds painful, but don't fret.

You've heard of upspeak? Surely you've heard of upspeak? The Guardians have been upset about that one for a while. When speakers end statements as though they were asking a question, that's upspeak. It's a bit of a vocal tic, with some people ending nearly every sentence on a high, questioning note, leaving the Guardians with the feeling that the speaker lacks confidence in what he or she is saying.

Vocal fry is almost the precise opposite of upspeak. It's a gravelly, guttural style of utterance that seems to issue from somewhere far back in the throat. It's also called "creaky voice," which provides a better description of the phenomenon. Did people adopt it in reaction to all the flack they were getting for upspeaking? Maybe, but it's hard to pin down exactly why, how, when and where these speech trends originate.

Scientists who specialize in speech also refer to vocal fry as "glottalization." It's a staccato vibration that results when voice pitch falls and the vocal cords flutter slowly. When you speak, your lungs push air up through a pair of flaps called "vocal folds," which are on either side of your voice box. This causes the vocal folds to vibrate, and the vibration produces a note. But when the air pressure from the lungs diminishes, the folds flap chaotically, producing no particular note. That's vocal fry.

In the past, some speech pathologists have considered vocal fry to be a speech disorder if it's used constantly and have warned that it can damage the vocal cords. This is likely to happen only if you're overusing it while, for instance, shouting for hours in fry mode at a loud bar [source: Humphries].

But, in general, experts doubt the current vocal fry trend will be causing any real damage since it typically appears only intermittently, usually at the end of sentences [source: Fessenden]. You know the kind of speech they're talking about — when the speaker's voice goes down a set of creaky stairs as it just kind of trails oooooffff...