M.A. Work

You can see slides of a version of this I presented at NWAV46 here.

Creaky voice as passive stancetaking: Creak, class, gender and power in modern Britain

My M.A. dissertation looked at creaky voice (sometimes called vocal fry) and its use amongst a small cohort of middle/upper-middle class London millennials.  I was primarily looking at whether we could say that creaky voice has a “proto-iconic” meaning – a meaning which comes from motor sensory analogy, given that it is a low frequency phonation type.

I conducted sociolinguistic interviews with six participants (3 women, 3 men – mean age 27.3).  From this interactional data, speakers took up creaky voice during moments of emotional or expressive “tempering” – where they try to lessen the affective impact of what they’re saying.  For example, they may not want to sound “too emotional” when talking about difficult school years, when criticizing someone, or when trying to reassert control over the conversation (e.g. if it had got onto a topic they didn’t want to talk about).  Creak, interestingly, occurs with what is otherwise quite “emotional” language – e.g. “thrown out of home”; “struggle”; “wanker”.  The semantic meaning of these words is communicated, but, by using creaky voice, the emotional impact is lessened.

This is similar to other studies and proposals for creak’s role in interaction (Levon (2016); Sicoli (2010); Laver (1980); Pratt (2015); D’Onofrio, Hilton and Pratt (2013)) where creak is used to create distance between the speaker and the conversation topic.  Conceptualizing this based on motor sensory analogy, creak can be visualized as lying in the middle of non-modal phonation types, with whisper and breathy voice at the low-frequency end and falsetto and harsh voice at the high-frequency end.  This begins to look like a pragmatic implicature.  If you want to not make an emotional move, so-to-speak, you’d presumably choose an option in the middle, without resorting to the high or low ends of the scale. Because of this middle-ground, I’ve glossed creak’s proto-iconic meaning as “passive”, because speakers are not making a move towards the high or low ends of the frequency/expressivity spectrum.

So creak, from my study, is used by speakers to distance or “temper” potentially emotional moments in conversation.  There is a certain power to this low-expressivity – a speaker is keeping their cards close to their chest.  This interacts with pragmatic notions such as “plausible deniability” (can you deny what you’ve said?) and speaker commitment (how much are you committing – epistemically or affectively – to what you’re saying).

Next, I turned to whether there were any correlations in my small speaker sample between class and creaky voice use.  The more that a speaker identified as upper-class (this was measured through an objective “score-based” questionnaire, and a subjective “how do you identify” questionnaire) the more creak they used.  This was particularly true amongst the men, where the speaker who identified highest along the class spectrum used creak 32.5% of the time, whilst the speaker who identified lowest used creak 0.68% of the time.  Whilst a larger sample is needed to test this further, there is perhaps a correlation between low-expressivity (e.g. creak) and social power.  This seems to impressionistically, and stereotypically, be true from my observations and from parodies or caricatures of class types in British popular culture.

As I concluded, (p.50-51): “There is a certain amount of power to be found in passive stance taking – one does not give much of oneself away (as seen in the men’s discourse examples), cards are able to be held close to one’s chest, and there is a degree of control in not demanding, or revealing, too much.  Indeed, this may be why creaky voice is used more by higher social status males than those identifying lower down the class spectrum in this study – through its passivity; it is less ‘threatening’ from a demographic who arguably hold a lot of social, cultural and political power.  Perhaps then, the men and women here are using creaky voice in context for the same reason (to navigate socially uneasy situations and appear less ‘threatening’), but for different socially imposed demands – the high-status men are attempting to appear less so, and the young women are attempting to assert power, but in a non-threatening way.

As young women continue to break glass ceilings and climb higher up social, economic and political ladders – one way they can ‘safely’ assert authority in a, still male-dominated world sceptical of young women’s abilities, is through their use of strategically deployed creak.  Could this be why, as discussed in section 1.2, young women have recently been derided for using the phonation type?  Could creaky voice – in contrast to Naomi Wolf’s assertion (The Guardian 2015) – actually be a subversive form of linguistic power?”