Vocal fry: Kim Kardashian inspires generation of creaky, croaky drawlers

Stuff reporters Kate Robertson and Jack Fletcher explain the phenomenon of vocal fry.

No longer content with copying celebrity fashion, make-up, products and accessories, Kiwi women are keeping up with their favourite stars by copying their creaky, croaky voices, a new study says.

Scientists have found more women are speaking with a rough voice – or "extreme vocal fry" – by lowering the sound of their voice to imitate American stars like the Kardashian family, Katy Perry and Britney Spears.

Persistent offender and Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Kim Kardashian has become the poster child for the croaky drawl, which is twice as common in young women as their older counterparts, according to research by Christchurch clinicians.

Kim Kardashian is one of the most well-known culprits of vocal fry.
Kim Kardashian is one of the most well-known culprits of vocal fry.

A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday analysed voice samples from a group of women in their 20s and compared them to archived recordings of older voices.

Vocal fry: Can we stop policing young women's voices already?
'Gay sounding' workers discriminated when applying for high-level jobs - study 
Women are changing their voices to sound 'creaky' like Kim Kardashian 
Creaking and croaking voices enough to make you cringe


In the study, tapes from speakers born between 1972 and 1987 were compared with current University of Canterbury students at similar ages. While all the speakers used vocal fry, the amount varied significantly.

The average number of instances of vocal fry per speaker in the older cohort was 51.3, and in the younger cohort was 146.7. One participant in the younger age bracket showed instances of vocal fry 303 times.

Lower pitched voices were associated with favourable personality traits and authority, but men preferred women with higher voices, voice laboratory studies found. Chief executives with deeper voices tended to manage larger companies, command higher salaries and enjoy longer tenures.

On a 2013 appearance on Conan, American actress Lake Bell said vocal fry was "festering through this great nation and it could be our demise".

"There is a pandemic that is rampant in this country, and it's the 'sexy baby vocal virus'. It's girls who talk like that and adopt that."

The study released by Jeremy Hornibrook, Tika Ormond and Margaret Maclagan also cited research that middle-class young women lead language change in new word expressions and speech sound changes. It remains to be seen whether it will become widely adopted by young men.

ornibrook said speakers were able to "turn on and turn off" their vocal fry as, unlike other voice conditions, it was a behaviour, not a disorder.

"In the same vein, you can have a woman with severe vocal fry speaking with a woman with a relaxed voice, so mostly without it, and she will quickly pick it up and adopt the vocal fry herself."

In the same way some people latched onto accents that didn't belong to them, vocal fry could unconsciously alter speech. Other suggestions for the cause of vocal fry were attempts to sound more confident or authoritive, he said.

Todd Gibson wrote in the Journal of Voice that "even when words have no meaning, young female speakers will seek to mark the end of an utterance or add emphasis with vocal fry".

In another New Zealand-based study, 36 speakers were recorded speaking for two minutes.

It found Māori speakers had more vocal fry than Pākehā, women had more vocal fry than men, and older speakers had more vocal fry than younger speakers.

The recordings were compared to data from 40 American students who were asked to read a passage and were assessed by three expert listeners under different acoustic conditions. Women were associated with increased vocal fry, and it was less likely to occur in places with higher background noise, and therefore likely to be volitional, the study said.