The Washington Post

‘Creaky voice’ draws huge audience to ‘Lexicon Valley’ podcast

A new language podcast from Slate. A new language podcast from Slate.

We know what drives Web traffic: LOLcats, Kate Middleton and . . .  guttural flutterings.

Wondering about that last one? Two years ago, psycholinguists at Long Island University wrote about what they call the “vocal fry,” a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords. Or “creaky voice.” Apparently, it’s growing more prevalent among young American women.

If you think that’s too academic and obscure to attract much attention, listen up.

When Slate’s relatively new podcast “Lexicon Valley” did a show about “creaky voice,” downloads soared. An interview this week with Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg on noted that the audience had jumped from its usual 50,000 to 650,000. “Do You Creak?,” episode 24, remains the show’s most popular ever.

I asked “Lexicon Valley” co-host Bob Garfield why that particular episode attracted such an enormous audience. “Partly because we put a name and a bit of scientific context to an affectation many have noticed, and many others hadn’t even noticed they’d noticed,” he said by e-mail. “Also, maybe because I took such an unequivocal position against vocal fry, which I think is worse than pork pie hats, the designated hitter rule and lawn statuary put together.”

Indeed, some listeners objected to Garfield’s characterization of the way young women speak. “There was a measurable backlash,” he said, “maybe two or three percent, who believed I am a superannuated sexist monster. The superannuated part is for sure.”

“Lexicon Valley” is a side project for Garfield, who also co-hosts NPR’s “On the Media” with Brooke Gladstone, but the new show is close to his heart. “I’m interested in language,” he notes, “but mainly I’m interested in what [Lexicon Valley co-host Mike Vuolo] has dug up on any given topic. . . . We just have fun. Also, and this is no small benefit, I get to curse.”

That can be a draw, too, of course. iTunes warns listeners that “Lexicon Valley” is “Explicit.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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