The Rise of Creaky Voice

Grunge Rocker

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Sometimes when I’m writing a post, I stumble upon something intriguing enough that it makes me change topic mid-stream. Today is one of those days.

I was going to look at the differences between General American accents among younger vs. older generations. As such, I found clips of two natives of Omaha, a midwestern city identified by William Labov and others as having one of the most “neutral” accents among major US cities.

The accent samples I attempted to compare were the unlikely duo of Warren Buffett, the renowned financial analyst, born in 1930; and famed musician Conor Oberst, born in 1980. And yet my research went off the rails: right off the bat, there was something very noticeably different about Oberst’s speech. Here’s the clip:

Unlike Buffett (whose clip I haven’t included), Oberst speaks with something called creaky voice. In a nutshell, this means that vocal folds are compressed, creating a … well, creaky sound in one’s voice.

Anyone who lives in the Northern US will probably recognize this as a “young person’s” accent feature. Being born in 1980 myself, many people I grew up with spoke with creaky voice, yet I’ve rarely heard it in anyone born before the 60′s.  Where did creaky voice come from? And why does it seem to be spreading? [If it is spreading!]

There has been a notion batted around for a while that creaky voice began as a prominent feature of Pacific Northwest English. This radio piece from a few years back on the dialect of Seattle mentions this, for example. There is even some historical evidence to back it up: some Amerindian languages in the Northwest feature creaky voice as well.

Indeed, listening to creaky-voiced speakers immediately draws to mind the Northwest’s grunge rock heyday. All those world-weary young men in flannel seemed to have this speech feature. The late Kurt Cobain certainly did:

In fact, this speech trait seems almost de rigeur among the alternative music set.  You could almost hypothesize it began as a regional quirk, then spread through the burgeoning indie rock movement. Evidence of its indie inter-regionalism?  Musician Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) has creaky voicing, even though his dialect otherwise betrays his place of upbringing (northern Wisconsin):

My take? I think creaky voice is indicative of a much larger trend in post-war American dialects. Namely, that we don’t really need to speak the way we once did. As we’ve become a more suburbanized and isolated culture, the need to communicate outside of our closest friends and family has diminished.

For me, the importance of creaky voice is not where it came from, but how a vocal quality which impedes the production of speech (it limits airflow) has managed to thrive. Common sense might suggest that in order to speak constantly with creaky voicing, you would have to be part of a society that requires less verbal communication.  Not that I’m condemning creaky-voicedness; I just see it as one more product of a suburban “indoor voice” culture.

Just thoughts. I know little about this phenomenon (or even how to use it correctly in a sentence — the creaky voice? a creaky voice?). Nor have I found much in the way of serious studies on it. Any thoughts?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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25 Responses to The Rise of Creaky Voice

  1. Dayna says:

    I’ve always associated creaky voice with smokers.

  2. KF says:

    Interesting all of the people you made example of were male.

    Of note – Yuasa (2010) writes about creaky voice as a feminine voice quality in midwestern yuppies.

    The sad part of the trend is how difficult creaky voice makes spectrogram reading.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting I did that too. For some reason I attribute the feature to males more than females (significant evidence to the contrary).

      So it would be more difficult to do an acoustic analysis of a creaky voiced speaker? That never occurred to me, although I guess it makes a lot of sense since creakiness alters the vibration of the vocal folds.

  3. Leo says:

    When I hear creaky voice, it always reminds me of the character Daria from the MTV show of the same name. She probably was a fan of alternative rock too.

    “Being born in 1980 myself, many people I grew up with spoke with creaky voice, yet I’ve rarely heard it in anyone born before the 60′s.”

    What about Bill Clinton? I know you said “rarely”, but I’m just curious if anyone else hears that.

    • trawicks says:

      Good point re: Clinton. Although like every president we’ve had for the past fifty years, he seems to have an accent all his own …

      • m.m. says:

        I remember reading a few things regarding creaky voice, and it’s use, and one of the “older” user examples commonly picked out is bill clinton, which in one case was regarded as a trait connoting authority, familiarity, something like that; i dont quite remember P:

        I also read something similar to what KF posted about about creaky voice becoming a prevalent trait in the new female ‘yuppie’ population. Although in my case, it had to do with young new york females, not midwestern ones. And I’m of the belief that creaky voice is present throughout the west coast, not just the PNW.

        Your mention of ‘indie’ spread reminds me that many people associate creaky voice with [female] ‘hipsters’, which is highly connected to ‘indie’.

        There was also something i read about how use of creaky voice can lead to… some type of growth on the vocal cords or something like that. [oof long post]

        • Leo says:

          “There was also something i read about how use of creaky voice can lead to… some type of growth on the vocal cords or something like that.”

          Are you referring to a nodule? You can see a definition here too. I didn’t see creaky voice mentioned at either one of those places though.

        • trawicks says:

          I didn’t say as much in the post, but I actually think the PNW connection is a bit of a stretch. To show that creaky voicing is a regionalism, you’d have to find a significantly greater incidence of it in said region. Which would be tricky given that this feature appears in so many speakers from so many parts of the country.

  4. Akin says:

    This is the interview with Kurt in Rio de Janerio and he did a lot of drugs back then. He always sounded cracky when he was stoned. When clean, in my opinion, he sounded quite normal. Compare voice of i.e. Mark Arm from Mudhoney or Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees-both from Seattle.

    • Akin says:

      sorry. not cracky but creaky. My bad! :)

    • trawicks says:

      Of course, complicating this issue is that smoking, drinking and perhaps other types of drug use cause creaky voicing as well. The first two because of what they do to your voice; the latter because decreased energy seems a factor in creaky voicing (it’s early in the morning for me now, pre-caffeination, and my own speech is pretty creaky).

  5. AL says:

    Could you explain “creaky” a bit more? I don’t know what compressed vocal chords sound like. Maybe a clip of someone saying the same sentence, first with and then without “creaky” voice?

    • TJ says:

      I just found two excellent audio clips of Seattle females using creaky voice. Here is the first one and here is the second one.

      • Ellen K. says:

        Thanks. I can’t for the life if me think why that would answer the question of what the heck do you mean by “creaky voice”, but somehow in those, I can hear it. Though I still don’t notice it in the first video clip (the only one that I went back and listened to a bit of).

        • trawicks says:

          I think the term “creaky voice” is used to describe a number of vocal qualities, actually–glottalization, pharyngealization, probably a few other types of “-ization”. You could probably separate “creaky voice” into a number of sub-categories, which is why it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

        • TJ says:

          So did they help or not? I don’t get it. I just realized that those are the same 2 clips used in the link to the radio piece.

        • TJ says:

          Not used in the link, but used in the actual radio piece :)

      • AL says:

        Thank you TJ, I think that clarifies it for me!

        I’ve always associated this “creakiness” (I still think that’s a strange adjective for this) with either laziness or tiredness. Or a sore throat. I think I tend to slip into it when it is late in the day or my throat is raw.

  6. Christopher Burd says:

    I always assumed it was caused by a hangover or too many cigarettes. But hasn’t a gravelly voice (if that’s a similar thing) often been considered sexy? You hear of people who wait until the have a sore throat to record their answering machine greetings, for that reason.

    On CBC, you sometimes hear girl hipsters using creaky voice with uptalk, an almost intolerable combination.

  7. Joseph Smith says:

    “Just thoughts. I know little about this phenomenon (or even how to use it correctly in a sentence — the creaky voice? a creaky voice?). Nor have I found much in the way of serious studies on it. Any thoughts?”

    Creaky voice (always written without any article before it) is what we call a “glottal setting”. The glottis is the gap between the vocal folds, as you may know. There is another related glottal setting simply called creak. With creak, the arytenoids (two cartilages at the back of the larynx which control the position of the vocal folds) are pressed together. Also with creak, the rear portion of the vocal folds near the arytenoids is together as well, but the front portion (towards the front of your neck) vibrates slowly. This sounds like a succession of glottal stops, one after another. It also sounds kind of like an old door creaking open. It vibrates about 40 times per second. This is almost slow enough for the vibrations to be heard individually by the human ear. That’s creak.

    Creaky voice (what this post is actually about) is similar to creak. The arytenoids are still pressed together and the front portion of the vocal folds still vibrates slowly, but the rear portion of the vocal folds, instead of remaining still, now vibrates rapidly. This rapid vibration adds voice to the creakiness, hence the term “creaky voice”. This sounds more complicated, but it is actually easier to imitate and much commoner in language than plain creak. In Danish, there is a phenomenon known as stød. Basically, some words are distinguished solely by whether or not they are said with creaky voice.

    I found an activity to help people produce creaky voice and creak. First say the long vowel [ɑː]. Now go down the scale as you’re saying it until it’s as low a note as you can comfortably achieve – and then go lower still. You’ll end up with creaky voice. Then take away the actual vowel sound, which will leave just the “rattle” of creak (because vowel=voiced). Just so you know, a lot of this is plagiarized from my textbook because I was too lazy to put it into my own words. But hey, I’m not trying to write a paper here, even if that might seem to be the case, based on the length of this comment.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Joseph! I was looking for something that offered a more scientific explanation. I find it funny, btw, that linguists buck their usual trend of using latinate terminology for something as prosaic as “creaky voice.”

  8. David says:

    Sorry to strike a discordant note, but I can’t hear creaky voice in these recordings, though they were so boring I didn’t listen to all of them. I have, though, often heard creaky voice from American women.

  9. Joe B says:

    Would you consider Cris Collinsworth’s voice to be a creaky voice. And also, do you find this feature to be prevalent in natives of Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky region like Cris is?

  10. Martha says:

    Here’s a creaky voice on a woman, that is the most annoying thing I’ve heard in my entire life. She talks about a Holiday Recipe Remix: Sweet Potato Pecan Tart posted Nov. 27, 2013 at YouTube:

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