Centuries of ‘TikTalk’

The media popularity of the vocal trend called ‘TikTalk,’ or a combination of uptalk and vocal fry, is actually nothing new, says linguist Mark Liberman.

A closeup look at a mouth speaking.
TikTok voice, uptalk, and vocal fry are current linguistic trends with a long history. (Image: iStock/suricoma)

Viral content is fleeting, and cyclical. For social media trends, the cycle revisits content since the dawn of Twitter, Facebook, even MySpace. But here is a trend that cycles back to the ancient Greeks: The way kids talk these days.

The latest round in the echo chamber of verbal intonation concerns “TikTalk,” a combination of vocal fry and uptalk that arguably is the popular communication style for influencers on the social media platform TikTok. The platform started in 2017, and the media frenzy over vocal fry went viral in 2011. Uptalk, or “Valley girl” voice has been documented since the 1980s. In other words, these quasi-linguistic panics have been around for decades, even centuries.

“Final pitch rise in declaratives has been standard in Scotland and the north of England for many centuries,”says Mark Liberman, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences. He argues that the examples of this “emerging trend” are nothing new.

In fact, news and pop culture websites like NPR, Vox, and the BBC have reported on why marketing influencers on social media have adopted this verbal trend, and tapped other social media influencers to comment on the trend. “You’re more likely to notice creaky voice, which involves a jump of an octave or two in pitch, in women, because generally their voices are higher,” Liberman says. “For example, it was a characteristic of Mae West to employ vocal fry. Her catchphrase, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me sometime’ offered both creak and fry.”

As for uptalk, or ending a sentence with a pitch rise, there are different manifestations: One can start low, or midrange, and end one or two octaves higher in range. The interpretation of who is behind that vocal pattern, or the measure of their intelligence or persuasiveness, varies widely. Simply put, one person’s “Valley girl” is another’s position of power and persuasion.

“In a study 20 or 30 years ago of employment interviews, final rises were found to be more common in the interviewer, not the interviewee,” says Liberman. “Final rise exhibiting uncertainty is a myth. The study found the interviewer employed final rise to make sure the interviewee was paying attention and to invite them to participate in the conversation.”

Mark Liberman.
“Once you get the idea that there are certain people who use vocal fry a lot, you’re much more likely to see a confirmation bias effect,” says Mark Liberman, linguistics professor in the School of Arts & Sciences. (Image: Courtesy of the School of Arts & Sciences)

In the 20th century, the majority of broadcast newscasters in the U.S. were men who employed a uniform vocal intonation commonly called “news anchor voice” or “broadcast voice.” The voice, says Liberman, was a decontextualized Midwest accent with no hint of regional dialect. “In the United Kingdom, newscasters historically spoke in Received Pronunciation, a British accent spoken mostly in London and southeast England, with no hint of a Yorkshire, Irish, Scottish, or even northern English dialect, with no regional accentual characteristics.” In today’s social media landscape, linguistic trends like “TikTalk” may reflect the same linguistic standardization trends.

There’s a biological and quantifiable reason for the majority of vocal fry instances: age. “In respect to vocal fry, it’s not only natural, it’s hard to avoid,” explains Liberman. “Look at trying to play the oboe: It’s not easy at first to play a pure note, it requires embouchure and breath control. The same is true for the larynx. Our species has evolved to give us the anatomy and musculature to speak and sing. Older people’s voices sound ‘creaky’ because the larynx tissue grows stiff. And as the volume of the voice decreases, you tend to get vocal fry.”

Depending on the size of their audience, vocal fry becomes part of social media influencers presence. “Once you get the idea that there are certain people who use vocal fry a lot, you’re much more likely to experience a confirmation bias effect in perception—and maybe join the perceived group in production,” Liberman says.

Mark Liberman is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at the School of Arts & Sciences, and a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.