By DAVID COLLARD
If you don't admire the American animated cartoon series Adventure Time it's almost certainly because you haven't seen it yet. In the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, Jake (a protean dog) and Finn (a boisterous boy) share a treehouse from which they set out on pocket odysseys, often involving the monstrous Lemongrab, a maniacal dictator whose catch phrase is a shrieked "Unacceptable!" It's wildly original with more wit, intelligence and flair in each eleven-minute episode than you'll find in a clutch of modern novels. That the two leading characters share their names with the protagonists of Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (1954) is part of the charm.
One of the many memorable minor characters is the shallow and self-absorbed Lumpy Space Princess, an airborne purple blob with a tiara. Her voice combines a strangulated babble of high-rising terminals (i.e. the upward inflection? At the end of declarative statements?) with a now-commonplace linguistic trait, originating in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and known as “vocal fry” – or, variously, as “pulse register”, “laryngealisation”, “pulse phonation”, “creak”, “popcorning”, “glottal fry”, “glottal rattle”, “glottal scrape” and “strohbass”.
Vocal fry is produced when the airflow through the glottis is very slow and the vocal cords vibrate irregularly, about two octaves lower than the frequency of normal vocalization. It usually occurs at the end of a long utterance. It seems impossible to reproduce here but you can hear it performed (and amusingly deconstructed) in this video by a droll American vlogger called Abby Normal:
Normal suggests that one aim of vocal fry is to express affiliation with a hypothetical elite by adopting a cool, detached and “unimpressed” register, suggesting a jaded cultural palate and a snooty if unfounded omniscience. It has been further suggested that vocal fry is an attempt to add gravitas by adopting a deeper, more “masculine” register. (This is nothing new to those of us who recall the extraordinary recalibration of Margaret Thatcher's range.)
This creaky vocalization has been on the rise among British speakers for some time now, especially, on radio programmes involving youngish contributors acting in a critical capacity, or speaking as a representative of some body or enterprise. It can be difficult to understand speech acts in which the real emotional or intellectual content is veiled by an aura of ennui.
A challenge to contemporary authors is to represent linguistic phenomena such as this in written form. Punctuation and a few long-established tropes aside (CAPITALS for shouting, italics for emphasis, an unspacedstreamofwords suggesting breathless excitement), mainstream writers haven't gone far in the search for new ways of representing speech. Authentic utterance is full of repetition, redundancy and hesitation – “to ‘er’ is human”, as the poet Michael Rosen says. These are usually removed from otherwise “naturalistic” dialogue and from (say) transcribed interviews for the simple reason that they would drive the reader nuts.
A few recent innovations aside (Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, rendered in an Old English “shadow tongue”, springs to mind), contemporary novelists tend to avoid engaging with the potential of human speech beyond declarative utterances, and the kind of eloquent exchanges in which the interlocutors are all but indistinguishable.
Perhaps one way ahead can be found in graphic novels. I recall, for example, Big Numbers, an incomplete series written in the 1990s by Alan Moore, in which a particular Northamptonshire dialect was represented by the word “T'choh”, first inked and then smeared to suggest the slurred vocal elision of the non-verbal utterance. Could a similar approach be applied to (say) vocal fry? Will Lumpy Space Princess ever find a voice in prose fiction?