Researchers are noticing a trend emerging among college-age women. No, it doesn't have to do with fashion, hair, or sexuality; it's related to their vocal patterns. Scientists say an increasing number of these women are exhibiting a growly, creaky, "annoying" speech pattern known as vocal fry. Here, a brief guide to the rise of "growling speech":

What's happening?
A new study of young women in New York state has found that many are adopting a "curious vocal pattern" called vocal fry, or glottalization, which is characterized by "low, creaky vibrations." Pop stars like Britney Spears and Ke$ha sometimes deliberately use it to hit low notes or add intrigue to their singing. Kim Kardashian is also a notorious vocal frier. Once considered a speech disorder, vocal fry is the lowest of the three vocal registers, which also include modal and falsetto. "In other words, it is the sort of gritty, sexy voice that 85-year-old habitual smokers develop," says Roberta Anderson in the International Business Times.

How was the study conducted?
Researchers from New York's Long Island University looked at the predominance of vocal fry in college-age women. They recorded 34 young women speaking. Two speech pathologists then listened to and analyzed the recordings, looking for vocal fry. More than two-thirds of the women in the study were found to use vocal fry. Most often the subjects used vocal fry at the end of sentences. But more research is needed to determine how widespread this is, and why it's happening. "As a piece of research, this paper is more of an amuse-bouche than an entree," says Veronique Greenwood at Discover Magazine. "In the meantime, phoneticists, rejoice: You've now got an army of curious folks who will be listening for vocal fry wherever they go."

How and why does vocal fry happen?
It is produced when the vocal chords slowly vibrate and flutter. It's unclear why we might consciously or unconsciously choose to employ it. "It is possible that these college students have either practiced or observed this vocal register and modeled it to match popular figures," say the study's authors. It could also be a social link among young women, as they tend to creak when they get together. Others note that radio interviewers might use it to imply intimacy with their subjects.

Is this a bad thing?
Not necessarily. While vocal fry was once classified as a speech disorder and has the potential to damage vocal chords, researchers say the fry that the study's subjects exhibited isn't likely to do so because it was fairly sporadic. "In some ways, this work is a reminder that conversational English, though we don't think about it much, does have aspects of a tonal language," says Greenwood. "Mandarin Chinese has four different  tones, each of which encodes explicit meaning, so one syllable, depending on the tone used, can have four very different meanings."

Sources: Discover Magazine, International Business Times, JezebelNYU Local, Science Now