Can you tell whether someone is male or female just from their voice? One of the more obvious cues our brains have when determining a person's gender is whether their voice is high- or low-pitched. But a new study shows that the way we pronounce words, specifically the letter "s" can have just as much impact on how people perceive our gender.
According to University of Colorado Boulder researcher Lal Zimman, who studied 15 transgender folks in San Francisco transitioning into men, a person's style of speech might be just as important for how we perceive maleness as whether they sound like Barry White.
The testosterone administered during the transition process lowers the voice (among other physical changes). Zimman studied how low their voices needed to drop before people perceived them as male. He found that if the speaker pronounced the "s" sound at a lower frequency, by moving the tongue farther away from the teeth, their voices could have a higher pitch and people would still think they were male.
"A high-frequency 's' has long been stereotypically associated with women's speech, as well as gay men's speech, yet there is no biological correlate to this association," said CU-Boulder linguistics and anthropology Associate Professor Kira Hall, who served as Zimman's doctoral adviser said in the press release. "The project illustrates the socio-biological complexity of pitch: the designation of a voice as more masculine or more feminine is importantly influenced by other ideologically charged speech traits that are socially, not biologically, driven."
Listen to sample clips from "Joe" whose "s" sounds are farther from the teeth, and "Karn" who uses high-frequency "s" sounds. Both are at the same frequency, 140 hertz, which is considered in the male vocal range.
Another factor in determining gender was whether the speaker's voice resonated from the chest (male) or the head (female), and that such resonance was something we learned when we were little, but can be changed. "Resonance is lower for people whose larynx is deeper in their throats, but people learn to manipulate the position of their larynx when they're young, with male children pulling their larynxes down a little bit and female children pushing them up," Zimman said.
As someone whose voice is hopelessly nasal, there go my dreams of becoming a smarmy lounge singer.