What Is Vocal Fry?

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT, AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT, AFP/Getty Images

You may have heard of the linguistic fad that’s creeping into U.S. speech and undermining your job chances. Or maybe you know it as the "debilitating speaking disorder afflicting North American women" or the "verbal tic of doom." It’s called vocal fry, and it’s the latest “uptalk” or “valleyspeak,” a.k.a. the “ditzy girl” speaking style that people love to hate.

Unlike uptalk, which is a rising intonation pattern, or valleyspeak, which covers a general grab bag of linguistic features, including vocabulary, vocal fry describes a specific sound quality caused by the movement of the vocal folds. In regular speaking mode, the vocal folds rapidly vibrate between a more open and more closed position as the air passes through. In vocal fry, the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives it a characteristic sizzling or frying sound. (I haven’t been able to establish that that’s how fry got its name, but that’s the story you hear most often.)

Vocal fry, which has also been called creaky voice, laryngealization, glottal fry, glottal scrape, click, pulse register, and Strohbass (straw bass), has been discussed in musical and clinical literature since at least the middle of the 20th century. It is a technique (not necessarily encouraged) that lets a singer go to a lower pitch than they would otherwise be capable of. It shows up with some medical conditions affecting the voice box. It is also an important feature in some languages, like Zapotec Mayan, where fry can mark the distinction between two different vowels. These days, however, you mostly hear about it as a social phenomenon, as described (and decried) as “the way a Kardashian speaks” in this video by Faith Salie.

Certainly, a compilation like this makes vocal fry look like a new thing, but looks can be deceiving. As Mark Liberman showed at Language Log, evidence for its rise is only anecdotal, and it’s not hard to find examples of it going way back. People’s voices naturally drop in pitch at the end of phrases, and in many speakers, it will drop into the fry zone at that point. The evidence that it’s a female thing is also anecdotal. Plenty of men fall into vocal fry. For instance, Noam Chomsky has it pretty bad.

No one seems to be complaining that Chomsky’s creaky voice makes him sound ditzy. Whether or not vocal fry is actually on the rise, it is clear that people noticing fry, especially in young women, is on the rise. In a segment on This American Life, Ira Glass said “listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak … But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.”

Glass talked to linguist Penny Eckert, who did a study asking people to rate how authoritative a radio reporter with vocal fry sounded. The response depended on the age of the rater. Those under 40 thought it sounded authoritative while those over 40 did not. Basically, as summed up by Glass, “if people are having a problem with these reporters on the radio, what it means is they're old.”

This piece originally ran in 2015.

Does Sound Travel Faster or Slower in Space?

iStock/BlackJack3D
iStock/BlackJack3D

Viktor T. Toth:

It is often said that sound doesn’t travel in space. And it is true … in empty space. Sound is pressure waves, that is, propagating changes in pressure. In the absence of pressure, there can be no pressure waves, so there is no sound.

But space is is not completely empty and not completely devoid of pressure. Hence, it carries sound. But not in a manner that would match our everyday experience.

For instance, if you were to put a speaker in interstellar space, its membrane may be moving back and forth, but it would be exceedingly rare for it to hit even a single atom or molecule. Hence, it would fail to transfer any noticeable sound energy to the thin interstellar medium. Even the somewhat denser interplanetary medium is too rarefied for sound to transfer efficiently from human scale objects; this is why astronauts cannot yell to each other during spacewalks. And just as it is impossible to transfer normal sound energy to this medium, it will also not transmit it efficiently, since its atoms and molecules are too far apart, and they just don’t bounce into each other that often. Any “normal” sound is attenuated to nothingness.

However, if you were to make your speaker a million times bigger, and let its membrane move a million times more slowly, it would be able to transfer sound energy more efficiently even to that thin medium. And that energy would propagate in the form of (tiny) changes in the (already very tiny) pressure of the interstellar medium, i.e., it would be sound.

So yes, sound can travel in the intergalactic, interstellar, interplanetary medium, and very, very low frequency sound (many octaves below anything you could possibly hear) plays an important role in the formation of structures (galaxies, solar systems). In fact, this is the mechanism through which a contracting cloud of gas can shed its excess kinetic energy and turn into something compact, such as a star.

How fast do such sounds travel, you ask? Why, there is no set speed. The general rule is that for a so-called perfect fluid (a medium that is characterized by its density and pressure, but has no viscosity or stresses) the square of the speed of sound is the ratio of the medium’s pressure to its energy density. The speed of sound, therefore, can be anything between 0 (for a pressureless medium, which does not carry sound) to the speed of light divided by the square root of three (for a very hot, so-called ultrarelativistic gas).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Is Bologna Made Of?

iStock/DebbiSmirnoff
iStock/DebbiSmirnoff

Like hot dogs and SPAM, bologna is often regarded as something of a mystery meat. Regardless of your feelings about this much-maligned cold cut, bologna is a familiar presence in supermarkets, school cafeterias, and maybe even your own fridge. But what exactly is it?

Similar to the a handful of other curious foods, the answer really depends on the deli or manufacturer. The meat can be made from cured beef, chicken, or pork—or some combination of the three. Some varieties are made from premium cuts of meat, while others are made from ground-up organs, trimmings, and other unmentionables. However, products containing the latter are usually labeled as having "byproducts" or "variety meats," and they're (thankfully) hard to find in grocery stores nowadays, according to The Takeout.

The meat is cooked and smoked, and sometimes wrapped in a casing that's made from the gastrointestinal tracts of cows, sheep, or hogs, according to The Journal Times. This is the norm for several varieties of sausage, and it sure beats synthetic casings, which can be made from collagen and sometimes plastic. However, the casings are often removed before the product is sold commercially.

Although it's now one of America's favorite sandwich fillings, the lunch staple was named after the city of Bologna in northern Italy—even though Italians would turn their noses up at the stuff we're sandwiching between two slices of white bread. (And don't forget the processed American cheese!)

Their version of bologna—known as mortadella—has different colored spots on its surface. That's because it contains bits of fat, peppercorns, and sometimes sliced pistachios. In the U.S., on the other hand, the USDA says all cooked sausages (including bologna and hot dogs) must be comminuted, or "reduced to minute particles." In other words, the ingredients are emulsified and churned into a homogenous pink meat paste. As The Huffington Post puts it, "Mortadella is to bologna as fresh, roasted turkey on Thanksgiving is to sliced turkey lunchmeat."

Oscar Mayer, one of the best-known bologna producers, sells one variety made from "mechanically separated" chicken and pork, with a little bit of beef added in. According to the USDA, "Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue."

Aside from the meat, the recipe contains a blend of spices. A few of the most common ones added to bologna include salt, pepper, celery seed, coriander, paprika, and sugar—or, more commonly, corn syrup. And myrtle berry is often the secret ingredient that gives the meat its signature taste.

Although many companies won't reveal their preferred blend of spices, most of the ingredients in bologna are no secret. They're listed on the package, free for all to read. As it turns out, most mass-produced varieties of bologna are a lot less gross than you may think—as long as you're ok with corn syrup-flavored meat batter. Who's hungry?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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