You've probably heard it countless times before without even noticing, or maybe you're guilty of it yourself — a speech pattern known as vocal fry, described as a creaky, nasally growl at the back of throat.

This week, the seemingly innocuous mannerism made its way into the public consciousness thanks to prominent feminist writer Naomi Wolf.

When young women are using this combo of vocal fry and uptalk and indeterminacy, they just don't get respect. - Naomi Wolf on CBC's The Current

In an op-ed for the Guardian, she wrote that vocal fry — which is often described as "baby talk" and associated with female celebrities like Britney Spears and the Kardashians — undermines women's voices, making them sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable. She encourages women to drop the fry.  

"'Vocal fry' has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women's authority in newly distinctive ways," she writes, adding that some older men have been known to find it "intensely annoying."

In case you're still wondering what vocal fry sounds like, this video offers a helpful, if derisive, explanation of the speech pattern.

On Tuesday, Wolf appeared on CBC Radio's The Current and doubled-down on the idea that mannerisms like vocal fry and uptalk (where sentences end with a rising intonation, like a question) are hurting women in the workplace.

"When young women are using this combo of vocal fry and uptalk and indeterminacy, they just don't get respect," she told host Piya Chattopadhyay.

But what was probably intended as a feminist call to action hit a nerve with bloggers and social media commenters who argued that the attack on vocal fry is really an attack on women.

A couple of days after Wolf's op-ed, the Guardian published another commentary by Erin Riley, who wrote that vocal fry isn't the problem — the problem is that people are always looking for reasons to not listen to women's voices.

"It is merely another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalize women's voices, both literally and figuratively," she writes. "And it's just the latest in a long history of finding excuses not to listen to what women, especially young women, say."

Case in point: while women are the ones who are usually accused of vocal fry, many men do it, too.

Some have pointed out that renowned academic Noam Chomsky does it all the time — yet there are few people who would tell him he sounds incompetent or uneducated.

In an episode of This American Life that aired earlier this year, host Ira Glass also admitted that he's guilty of vocal fry, but that no one seems to notice or care.

"I get criticized for a lot of things in the emails to the show. No one has ever pointed this out," Glass said.

A re-mix on SoundCloud featuring a chorus of men's voices showing that although it's often ignored, "like climate change, male vocal fry is real":

But for women, it's a different story. In fact, criticizing women's voices on the radio has become so common that producers at the podcast 99% Invisible crafted a biting auto-reply email to respond to all the complaints.

NPR also jumped into the debate, asking if vocal fry was just a way to "police" women's voices. When linguist Penny Eckert was interviewed, she pointed out that younger listeners tend not to be bothered by vocal fry, revealing a possible generational gap.

"There's been a change and those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old," she said.

On Twitter, many defended vocal fry — some even celebrated it.

But others were still confused about vocal fry, and why it's a "thing":

But for women who are still concerned about how exactly they should be talking, the Washington Post offered up a cheeky blog with 13 tips on how to speak while female:

"Avoid questions entirely, lest someone hear you speaking with a rising inflection and take away your place in the workforce. When you wish to ask a question, have a man ask it for you, to save face."

Clarifications

  • The original headline on this story was "Naomi Wolf slammed after telling young women to drop 'vocal fry'". Wolf told CBC Radio's The Current that she would "never tell women what to do or how to speak." The headline on this story has been updated.
    Aug 03, 2015 12:27 PM ET