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Arana: Good sociolinguistic conclusion despite questionable examples

Gabriel Arana, web editor of The American Prospect, recently published a defense of creaky voice at The Atlantic. Arana notes that recent criticism of young women’s use of creaky voice, or “vocal fry”, is part of a long tradition of critiquing the speaking styles of less powerful groups of people. Arana’s conclusion that “normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes” is absolutely correct and well-known to linguistic anthropologists and other scholars of language. The particular speech patterns he analyses to support his conclusion, however, are somewhat questionable.

Arana suggests that like creaky voice, up-talk (rising intonation in declarative sentences) and the discourse marker like are innovations attributable to young, urban women. Certainly, each of these non-standard forms is frequently attributed to young women. Furthermore, empirical studies do suggest that women are often more innovative than men in terms of language change (e.g. Fasold 1968; Labov 1972; Nichols 1978; Gal 1978; inter alia) and that the speech of young women is frequently stigmatized. But the sociolinguistic and historical data on up-talk, like, and creak provides a far less clear picture.

I am less familiar with the literature on up-talk, but can point to the ever-insightful Language Log for meta-analysis of work on the phenomenon. Mark Liberman reviews work in which the rising intonation is found among high-status individuals (men as well as women) and others where it is associated with low status and especially with young women. (More Language Log posts on uptalk can be found here.)

I am more familiar with work on discourse markers and creaky voice. The use of like as a discourse marker has a fairly long history. As Jim Miller and Regina Weinert (1995) point out, the usage has appeared in fiction since the nineteenth century, and is likely much older in speech.

Sali Tagliamonte’s 2005 study of discourse markers used by Canadian teens found that like was more common among young women than young men. But Tagilamonte’s work also suggested that this is not a linguistic change in progress, but age-graded variation.

Sociolinguistic variation associated with young people can have two causes. A “change in progress” occurs when a new form is entering the language. Such change is noticeable in the differences between the speech of young people and that of older people who maintain the older form. This is the kind of “linguistic unorthodoxy” That Gabriel Arana celebrates in young American women’s speech. But another kind of variation, age grading, does not reflect a changing language. Some forms of language are used by people of a particular age but then abandoned later in life. A classic example is Canadian children who call the last letter of the Latin alphabet /zi:/ in contrast with Canadian adults who call it /zεd/. This variant pronunciation has been seen for decades among fans of Sesame Street and similar US television programs, but has not resulted in a change among Canadian adults. At some point, it appears, young Canadians switch to /zεd/ and follow the adult pattern.

Tagliamonte found that 15 and 16 year olds in Toronto used the discourse marker like more frequently than those aged 17 to 19, but also more than those younger than 15. This is the sort of pattern we would expect to see with age grading. While Tagliamonte’s corpus was too small to be the basis of definitive claims (just 26 speakers), it gives us reason to question the idea that youth are leading a vanguard of like as a discourse marker.

So-called “vocal fry”, also known as creaky voice or laryngealization, has received a good deal of attention from amateur as well as professional linguists over the past year or so. Between December 2011 and February 2012 the phenomenon was noted in sources from Science Now to MSNBC and the New York Times.

In Februay 2012 New York Times reporter Douglas Quenqua cited a then-unpublished paper (it has since come out in the May 2012 issue of the Journal of Voice) by Lesley Wolk, Nassima B. Abdelli-Beruh, and Dianne Slavin describing the acoustic characteristics of vocal fry in the speech of 34 female American college students.* He also spoke to Abdelli-Beruh and to Penny Eckert, both of whom suggested that phonation can express meaning; and to Carmen Fought and Language Log’s Mark Liberman, who both noted that linguistic innovation tends to be evaluated negatively. Like other news reporters and bloggers, Quenqua suggested that vocal fry was a new fad among American women.

Faddish it may be, but creaky voice is hardly new. As Liberman noted in 2011, Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh, and Slavin did not trace changes over time (nor did they compare women and men). Liberman also cites work in phonetics since the 1980s finding that creaky voice is not uncommon in American English, especially at the ends of phrases.

My own work with Tamara Grivic in 2004 found that American English speakers (all men in our small study) use the word yeah with creaky voice to essentially give up a turn to talk. We also cited earlier work such as Ben Blount and Elise Padgug (1976) who found creaky voice in American parents’ child-directed speech, and Jeffrey Pittam (1987) who found it among Australians. In both of those studies, the phenomenon was somewhat more common among men than women. John Laver (1980) also described creak among British speakers of Received Pronunciation.

Gabriel Arana is correct in his conclusion: people who revile young women’s creaky voices reveal more about their attitudes toward young women than their sensitivities to acoustic correlates. But his examples of linguistic innovation are not quite as clear as he makes them out to be.


Blount, Ben and Elise Padgug. 1976. Mother and father speech: Distribution of parental speech features in English and Spanish. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 12: 47-59.

Fasold, Ralph. 1968. A sociolinguistic study of the pronunciation of three vowels in Detroit speech. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics. (manuscript)

Gal, Susan. 1978. Peasant men can’t get wives: Language change and sex roles in a bilingual community. Language and Society 7:1-16.

Grivicic, Tamara, and Chad Nilep. 2004. When phonation matters: The use of yeah and creaky voice. Colorado Research in Linguistics 17(1).

Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Laver, John. 1980. The Phonetic Description of Voice Quality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, Jim, and Regina Weinert. 1995. The function of LIKE in dialogue. Journal of Pragmatics 23: 365-393.

Nichols, Patricia. 1978. Black women in the rural South: Conservative and innovative. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 17: 45-54.

Pittman, Jeffrey. 1987. Listeners’ evaluations of voice quality in Australian English speakers. Language and Speech 30(2): 99-113.

Tagliamonte, Sali. 2005. So who? Like how? Just what? Discourse markers in the conversations of young Canadians. Journal of Pragmatics 37: 1896-1915.


* It is curious to me that, while the Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh, and Slavin paper was widely cited, a 2010 paper by Ikuko Patricia Yuasa in American Speech did not receive much attention. Unlike Wolk and her colleagues, Yuasa actually did find creaky voice to be more prominent among American women than among American men or Japanese women.

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