Upspeak and Vocal Fry

I’m 48, old enough to have seen plenty of my firmest coaching beliefs morph like a CGI dream sequence.   One of those firm beliefs was that upspeak, vocal fry, and vocal fillers make people sound stupid.

Upspeak (aka uptalk or “high-rising terminal”) is when a person ends a statement as though it were a question.  Vocal fry is when the voice falls into the lowest vocal register – some call it creaky voice.  Vocal fillers are insertions such as “um” or “like”.  Here’s one guy’s explanation.

Thanks, cranky white dude!   I come from the exact same school of coaching.  The old school … in fact, the now outdated school.

For anyone who is still cultivating a moral outrage against upspeak, vocal fry, and linguistic fillers:  I’m truly sympathetic.  It was delicious fun to have a thing I was so right about, and I could point to it everywhere.

That really should have been the clue.

Once a linguistic tic is an “epidemic” and everyone is doing it (or as in this case, most people under the age of 35), it’s no longer just an annoying aberration, it’s a real linguistic shift and I need to account for it.

Check out this Bloomberg article, showing how upspeak is not at all about stupid women.   And now try this NPR story about the potential intersections with feminist issues.  And this one from points out fascinating facts about vocal fry, its history and gender distribution.  And wonder of wonders, there’s even evidence showing that vocal fillers (um, uh, and like) are potentially valuable, in that they are natural parts of spontaneous communication, distinguishing it from rehearsed or written pieces.

Truthfully, I do still notice those verbal tics, and sometimes they bug me.

Shall I waste time whining and calling out my personal pet peeves as the “degradation of the English language”?   Maybe I’ll lump them in with all the other things I find threatening about Millennials, like their music and their tech devices and their horrible… youngness.  I could do that much more easily when they had no money to buy my products, and I didn’t need them as employees, contractors or audience members.

Not now.  Now I kinda, like…  LIKE them.

This is not to say I as the 48 year old white lady should attempt to pepper my speech with the latest urban dictionary entries , though it’s huge fun to read them.   Authenticity still matters.  People know when you’re faking your code language.*

The core question that we’re circling is “How Do We Communicate Authority”?  And of course, the exact answers vary depending on context. A county courtroom is different from a PopCap product launch, which is nothing like a TED talk.

Underneath any generational or industrial variation, and underneath any vocal pet peeve issues, I find the same foundations that have always existed:

  1. Actually know your stuff.
  2. Understand who you’re talking to.   
  3. Give them your stuff.   

These three pillars will hold up long after LOL-speak has gone the way of 60’s surfer slang and 20’s hepcat lingo.



*Fo shizzle.