The report, recently published online in the Journal of Voice, examines the prevalence of a speech pattern called "vocal fry," the creaky, rough, guttural sound that pop singers sometimes use to slip into lower notes. Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, one of the study authors (along with Lesley Wolk and Dianne Slavin) and a speech scientist at Long Island University, describes the sound like "rattled, popping air."
Can you hear in your head the way Spears croaks the line "Oh baby, baby" in "Baby One More Time"? (If not, watch the video here.) The first two seconds of the Ke$ha hit "Blah Blah Blah" is another good example. And as our pals over at Maddow Blog point out, you can hear vocal fry in practically every word out of Kim Kardashian's mouth.
Vocal fry has historically been considered a speech disorder, the study authors note, often seen in patients with vocal cord damage. Specifically, the speech habit can cause contact granulomas, benign but painful lesions on the vocal cords.
But this study suggests the quirk is becoming normalized. Researchers from Long Island University recorded speech from 34 college-aged women, and found that more than two-thirds of them used the croaky "vocal fry" sounds, usually dipping into the low, creaky register at the end of a sentence.
"My colleagues and I have noticed this speech pattern in our young female college students," says Abdelli-Beruh, adding that about 99 percent of their students are female. After publishing the data on vocal fry in college women, she and her team did a similar study on college men, and found that the guys are much less likely to speak in croaks. "Interestingly, some research indicates that in some dialects of British English, male speakers use fry more often than female. So maybe it is also a gender marker," Abdelli-Beruh says.
It's likely also a generational marker. "(A)necdotally, vocal fry is judged to be annoying by those who are not as young as the college students we tested," she says. "My son, who is a teenager, listens to 92.3 NOW in NYC. I noticed the way the voice said 'NOW' on the radio (is) clearly glottal fry."
The volunteer speakers didn't use vocal fry when speaking vowel sounds, suggesting the trend is more habitual or social than anything else. "It is possible that these college students have either practiced or observed this vocal register and modeled it to match popular figures," the authors write, noting that future research will explore the social nature of vocal fry. But the continuous use of the guttural speech could put these young women at risk for vocal cord damage. (It's tough to produce the sound loudly, so the croak may cause increased vocal cord tension and fatigue.)