voices of colors?
February 22, 2006 9:40 AM   Subscribe

why do different races/ethnicities sometimes have different timbres to their voices?

i was on the phone with a sales rep yesterday. he spoke with a pretty "flat" accent, but the timbre of his voice made me think he was asian. sure enough, after we spoke, i found out he was an asian-american.

the phone call got me to thinking about the qualities of a person's voice, and how you can frequently, though by no means always, guess someone's ethnicity or "race" by the timbre of their voice; and how sometimes, especially with singers, you can be in for quite a surprise when you see that the ethnicity suggested by their voice doesn't match that suggested by their physical appearance.

why is that? (and am i using "timbre" in the right way? i hope you all can figure out what i'm talking about....)
posted by lord_wolf to Science & Nature (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Accent and regional dialect. Has nothing to do with race.

The child of a person that learned English as a second language that grew up around other people that learned English as a second language will pick up certain accents in their own speech. You get a whole community of people with those types of accents and dialects and you get what you are calling a "timbre."
posted by Pollomacho at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2006


You're not really supposed to note that there are physical differences between racial archetypes, but there really are minor ones and the structure of the pharanx and resulting shape of the glottis is probably one of them. No one has done a study of this to my knowledge, but it's at least possible that there are subtle vocal qualities formed by variations that are relatively consistent among people of a certain race.

Of course, more of this is probably accent whether you can actively hear it or not, as well as word choice consistent with ethnic dialects.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:54 AM on February 22, 2006


At least one of the more obvious physical differences is the shape of the nose and as anyone who has had a cold knows, the nose has a big affect on the sound of the voice
posted by TedW at 10:02 AM on February 22, 2006


Useless anecdote - my roommate and I were ordering at a Sonic drive-in and the girl taking the order said something totally innocuous - we both blinked, looked at each other, and said almost in unison, "Well, she's a dyke". We never confirmed this, and never figured out why were both so utterly convinced independent of one another, but I still believe it. (Point is, I think there are speech markers that denote culture at least as much as race)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2006


Timbre also has to do with how relaxed/tense you are, which is probably related to culture and indirectly to race.
posted by callmejay at 10:30 AM on February 22, 2006


I think Pollmacho's right.

At least one of the more obvious physical differences is the shape of the nose and as anyone who has had a cold knows, the nose has a big affect on the sound of the voice

I don't buy this- clogging and inflammation typically occur in your sinuses, which sit at the base of the nose. The outer (?) nasal cavity itself (the part you can pick) is what varies more, isn't it?

MC, I don't think you're racist, just wrong. Hasn't scientific analysis so far concluded that physical variance is higher WITHIN races than BETWEEN them?
posted by mkultra at 10:35 AM on February 22, 2006


Nonsense - ever meet someone who was adopted by people of a different race? A Korean friend in high school sounded as "white" as I did by virtue of his adoptive parents. If anything, he might have had a bit of "jewish" in his voice as that was the religion practiced in his house.

As for singers, they sound like the artists and musical style they're trying to emulate. Hence Janice Joplin and Elvis sound "black" even though they're clearly not.

When I travel abroad, I start sounding a little British or Swedish in a subconscious effort to fit in and communicate better. It has everything to do with environment and nothing at all to do with physical difference. Even if there are slight physical variations, humans are quite capable of working around them, as it were, when learning to speak.
posted by aladfar at 11:01 AM on February 22, 2006


I vote for culture rather than physiology.

In my country blind studies have been conducted to see whether listeners could tell whether New Zealand English speakers were Pakeha (European-descended) or Maori (the indigenous Polynesians). Results were consistent with random chance.

(I have the book sitting around somewhere for reference but I'm not motivated to go look it up unless you really care).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2006


I have nothing scientific to contribute, but I (a black female) and my brother were raised in a "posh" area of Michigan. We definitely sound alike in grammar, accent, and dialect, but when speaking on the phone, people are not likely to know I'm black, but many know that he is. I'm kinda high-pitched, and he's got a much bassier tone, and perhaps that has something to do with it.

I'm with the original poster--I think that there's more at work than accent, or even vowel pronunciation (which I find is frequently a race/place-of-origin differentiator), and that there is something to race-based voice-production structure variation.

I'm not saying there are any hard and fast ways of discerning what race a person is by their voice, or that one could do it reliably, but it's obviously possible to do at times.

And why aren't we supposed to note physical differences as suggested above?
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 11:15 AM on February 22, 2006


Well, there may be archetypal voices that races have, but I doubt you'd do very well trying to guess who is who by audio alone in practice. Not accounting for cultural differences.
posted by delmoi at 11:20 AM on February 22, 2006


Well, there have been several studies examining the potential acoustic differences between African American and European American voice qualities. Some of them suggest that listeners can distinguish between the two with up to 80% accuracy. This one suggests 60% accuracy.

The short notes from this study, however, appear to show that some acoustic phonetic cues used in previous studies (f0, jitter, shimmer) aren't significantly different in some cases. I didn't do a follow-up search for any studies involving comparisons with Asian Americans, but I never heard of any during my grad coursework.
posted by cog_nate at 11:31 AM on February 22, 2006


i_am_joe's_spleen, can you look that up? How does that study take in to account the Maori NZ accent?
posted by dydecker at 11:40 AM on February 22, 2006


I'd be inclined to poo-poo this idea if it weren't for an anecdote very similar to the OP's. An old friend called my parents' number looking for me; my mom passed along the message and the following conversation ensued:

Mom: is she Japanese?
Me: no, she's American
Mom: I mean, does she have Asian ancestry?
Me: Well, yeah, she's fourth-generation Japanese-American, why?
Mom: I don't know, something in her voice made me think she was Asian.

The person in question doesn't have any kind of ethnic accent (Californian, if anything), but I don't discount the possibility that my mom was picking up on something.
posted by adamrice at 11:47 AM on February 22, 2006


mkultra-I was using a cold as but one example of how nasal anatomy can change the voice; the external portion of the nose affects it too, as can be demonstrated by pinching your nostrils shut and talking. And just as there are external anatomical differences among people of different ethnic backgrounds, there are internal differences as mentioned above. A good overview of voice production can be found here.
That is not to say culture doesn't play a role; I don't think the two explanations are mutually exclusive. For example, languages that rely on pitch to change the meaning of a word have a different "sound" than those that don't, and I can see that a native speaker of such a language would continue to sound differently in other languages.
posted by TedW at 11:50 AM on February 22, 2006


And why aren't we supposed to note physical differences as suggested above?

I was being facetious, because there's no better way to make a white liberal nervous than discussing physical traits that run along ethnic lines. So a lot of answers here are going to start with fundamentalist-style reasoning: "I believe this to be true. Now how can I build a theory that supports my pre-supposed answer?" Obviously, the foregone conclusion for a lot of people here is that there aren't ANY ethnic differences because of the slippery slope and whatnot.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:53 AM on February 22, 2006


I'm going to have to go "yes" on the possibility of a link between what is known as race and voice timbre. There are other physical characteristics (ocular orifice in asians, and bone structure for native am's, for example) that denote heritage just by looking, that a simple timbre variation to the trained ear could just as easily pick up, seems legitimate. Culture and tradition may have some part of it, such as the neck-stretching tribes (which doesn't actually stretch the neck, just malforms the collarbone and other incidentals to make it seem that way) may in some way inadvertently modify the voice that could be detected as distinct, not to mention different ways of pronouncing letters by habit from one's native language.

It would seem that those who wish to discredit even the possibility of timbre variation on the basis that everyone is the same physiologically, seem somehow simultaneously and conveniently blind to the most obvious racial difference of skin color or another such marker. If you can trace DNA markers to locate someone's heritage, I'd reckon it'd be difficult to casually rule out voice timbre just on the basis of guessing.
posted by vanoakenfold at 12:02 PM on February 22, 2006


My vote is for physical differences. Sure, where and how you were raised will have a lot to do with it (especially when you're tired or distracted - that's when I revert back to being Texan), but one question that popped into my head while thinking about this was: how about men versus women? Children versus adults? Sure, there will be cases where you might get the difference wrong (hightalkers or young boys reading as women, lowtakers and butchier gals reading as men), but there's something physically different in our makeups that makes us sound different than each other. Since etnically we look different, I would think it has to have some part in it. You'll still make the occasional mistake, but it'll probably wind up averaging out on some bell curve or such.
posted by Moondoggie at 12:07 PM on February 22, 2006


I'm embarassed dydecker - I just voomed over the shelves and I can't find the damned book. Now I have to go to work. I'll have another look when I get home, and if I find it I will post and email.

Here's what I recall in a little more detail. The study was done at the University of Otago, in the late 70s or early 80s I think. The sample size was something like 100, split into four groups male/female/Maori/Pakeha. Its conclusion was that people could not consistently identify the ethnic group of the (recorded) speaker. I don't recall how they obtained their recordings - obviously that's important! At any rate as far as I know current thinking in linguistic circles in NZ is that there is little to no ethnic difference - in other words there is no "Maori NZ accent" - but there is a socioeconomic one. Note, this is where English is a first language. There are quite distinct accents when Maori or Samoan or Tongan or whatever was the first language, but different languages use different pitch ranges etc.

Personally I hear quite a distinct difference in articulation in the very oldest Maori, but I think that's because for many of them English was a second language, whereas English is a first language for the overwhelming majority of Maori now.

Getting slightly back to the original question, I wonder if smoking and social status aren't at work also. High status men speak slowly and at low pitch. Smokers have lower voices. And so forth. I certainly don't buy the implied black men=deep voice link that TG_Plackenfatz suggests. For every Barry White, there's a Michael Jackson.

lord_wolf, did you know that pitch varies between speech communities? Eg, US English speakers typically have a lower frequency range than the UK English speakers?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:09 PM on February 22, 2006


And yeah, I bet physiology does have some kind of role, but:
- first I want someone to show in a blind test that you can tell speakers apart consistently
- then I want someone to show that the groups identified in the first test differ only in ethnicity

Anecdotes like above just doesn't cut it. If nothing else, the times when you were right on the mark are probably more salient in your memory than the times when you were mildly surprised.

In a society where social status etc is contingent on your physical appearance, I don't know how you would tell between differences that originate in the shape of your anatomy and differences that originate in your response to the speakers around you.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2006


MC, I don't think you're racist, just wrong. Hasn't scientific analysis so far concluded that physical variance is higher WITHIN races than BETWEEN them?

I hate this statement. Every single time race comes up, someone says it.

Let's oversimplify and say everyone is made up of 1,000,000 traits. If you have two people of the same race, even if race is only decided by one trait, there can be only 999,999 variations between them, while it is possible to have a full 1,000,000 variations between one of them and someone of a different race. Statistically, people of the same race will have more in common than different races, since they already have at least one thing in common.

You can have more variation between two people of the same race than with two people of different races, but it isn't a given.
posted by soma lkzx at 12:33 PM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


- first I want someone to show in a blind test that you can tell speakers apart consistently
- then I want someone to show that the groups identified in the first test differ only in ethnicity


If you overlooked it, I posted that this study suggests that listeners were able to distinguish, at an above-chance level, the ethnicity of the speaker. These two, however, seem to contradict the assertion that there either are acoustic or physical differences between vocal tracts of different ethnicities. So... *shrug*

Sounds like a good dissertation topic for an enterprising Speech-Language-Hearing student.
posted by cog_nate at 12:36 PM on February 22, 2006


Response by poster: lord_wolf, did you know that pitch varies between speech communities? Eg, US English speakers typically have a lower frequency range than the UK English speakers?

no, i did not know that, and it fascinates me.

thanks for the great amount of food for cogitation present in this askme, folks. i'm glad to see i'm not crazy for noticing this, and the studies cog_nate linked to suggest there may actually be something to it.

what's funny is that although i occassionally speak with the accent of an urban black southerner, i apparently don't have that timbre: people i've spoken to on the phone have sometimes said i sound like a white person trying to sound black. does that bake your noodle as thoroughly as it bakes mine? ;-)
posted by lord_wolf at 12:50 PM on February 22, 2006


i_am_joe's_spleen, I'm very interested in that study. It kind of jibes with what I've come across myself. Anecotally, I have paheka friends and relatives who speak with a clipped "Maori" accent (!), which I suppose is just a working class NZ accent - one friend so much so that English speakers in Japan say to me, "What is up with that guy's accent? He sounds so different from you..." and then you hear Derek Fox or politicans or highly educated Maori speaking in RP-inflected tones a lot in the media. There is also the older Maori accent which is different again.

I dunno about this race affecting timbre of voice business. It sounds like the same old phrenological or physiognomy claptrap. I would put my money on these subtle differences in tone and accent being very much a product of culture.
posted by dydecker at 1:13 PM on February 22, 2006


I was being facetious, because there's no better way to make a white liberal nervous than discussing physical traits that run along ethnic lines.

Spoken like a true smug Libertarian.

soma lkzx- Your oversimplification doesn't make sense to me. In abstract statistics, that might be true, but human demographics don't work that way.
posted by mkultra at 1:16 PM on February 22, 2006


I hate this statement.

I hate it whenever talk about "the races" is bandied about. Since "race" has become code for "ethnic" can't we just drop the [incorrect taxonomic] usage of "race" since we're all members of the human race?

Related to the original question: how come Latino children say maMA but white and black kids say MAma? (That is, until they grow into the standard American of "Mom!")
posted by Rash at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2006


Rash: because in Spanish, it is "maMA." (Mamá, actually.)
posted by danb at 1:37 PM on February 22, 2006


I'm black, but many know that he is. I'm kinda high-pitched, and he's got a much bassier tone, and perhaps that has something to do with it.

Voice pitch (bassiness) does probably partially explain why people can distinguish black and white voices above chance. These researchers put the norms (average) at 110.15 Hz for black men, 117 Hz for white men, 193.10 Hz for black women, and 217 Hz for white women.

Lower voice pitch is very hard to imitate, as Joaquin Phoenix trying to capture Johnny Cash demonstrates. Physiology and hormones are important contributors (as the sex difference indicates). Testosterone therapy, for instance, results in lower voice pitch. And whites have significantly less testosterone than blacks.
posted by dgaicun at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2006


. . . on average!
posted by dgaicun at 2:07 PM on February 22, 2006


Hasn't scientific analysis so far concluded that physical variance is higher WITHIN races than BETWEEN them?

This statement is pretty much irrelevant to this thread, regardless of whether it is true or false. The averages are what matter for this question.
posted by event at 2:11 PM on February 22, 2006


Or what dgaicun said.
posted by event at 2:13 PM on February 22, 2006


because in Spanish, it is "maMA." (Mamá, actually.)

Yeah, but danb, how does an infant know that? It's what makes my comment relevant to this discussion, might there be some innate, ethnic force at work? The idea that "mama" is the first word, since the baby's experimenting with its lips, and the parent's approving behavior turns this vocal experiment into the mother-label.
posted by Rash at 2:13 PM on February 22, 2006


Yeah, but danb, how does an infant know that?

Because its ears work?
posted by dgaicun at 2:22 PM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Because its ears work?

Yeah, more or less. The auditory system of a fetus is developed enough in utero for the fetus to pick up on suprasegmental features like stress and prosody. The actual segments get filtered out, but by the time the baby is born it is accustomed to "hearing" the speech rhythms of its native language.

I'm looking for an article to back this up but can't find it right now. I think the experiments involved Russian infants.
posted by cog_nate at 2:31 PM on February 22, 2006


cog_nate, you're right, I did skim over your earlier post. Those are fascinating abstracts - I wish I could read the whole articles. I still think it would be best to try and abstract out other variables like smoking.

dgaicun, this is striking: "Fitch's white subjects showed a greater range below the mean mode than above it. This behavior was reversed for the black subjects of the present study. Such patterns of vocal behavior may be important clues which alert the listener to the speaker's racial identity." That suggests to me that there IS a cultural as well as a physical issue here, or at least that there is a difference in the use of tone in different language communities.

dydecker, I'm emailing you a bunch of stuff on NZ English that's pretty far off-topic: not timbre or vocal quality. Anyone else interested, my email's in my profile.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:20 PM on February 22, 2006


what's funny is that although i occassionally speak with the accent of an urban black southerner, i apparently don't have that timbre: people i've spoken to on the phone have sometimes said i sound like a white person trying to sound black.

This made me laugh! I'm completely bilingual (in Japanese and "middle-of-the-road" American English) and I've never been told that I sound "Asian" or "Japanese" after I've spoken to someone on the phone in English. If anything, I'm told I sound "white," and I've been told many times by Canadian people that I sound very American (but that's a different matter). So this post, and that anecdote by adamrice above about his mother sensing "something" in his friend's voice is interesting to me, because I don't think I could tell if any of my other bilingual Asian friends were Asian, if I didn't know beforehand, with just a phone conversation. Not saying it can't be done, just saying it's never happened to me.
posted by misozaki at 4:40 PM on February 22, 2006


dydecker: my email to you bounced.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:45 PM on February 22, 2006


The Speech Accent Archive - The speech accent archive uniformly presents a large set of speech samples from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and non-native speakers of English read the same paragraph and are carefully transcribed. The archive is used by people who wish to compare and analyze the accents of different English speakers.
posted by psychobum at 4:47 PM on February 22, 2006


Another time I somehow picked up an Asian from just the voice was in the movie Fargo. Remember, her old friend calls her on the phone speaking in that same Fargo accent. I have no idea what was distinctive but I suspected as much after very little conversation.
posted by dgaicun at 5:07 PM on February 22, 2006


I have a similar experience to misozaki - I'm Bangladeshi, born & bred in Malaysia, and no one can ever tell what the heck I am from my voice.

Here in Malaysia I'm often told that I have an American or British accent. I've been told by a New Yorker that I sound like a little kid (plenty of people tell me I sound "cute"). Hearing myself in the US or Europe, I notice I have quite a strong Indian accent.

When I'm in Malaysia I lapse into a Malaysian-style accent; amongst non-Malaysians I become more Westernized. With friends I'm very casual; in business & official matters I sound more formal - the "Brit/American" accent comes out. My voice alternates from high to low to who knows what.

Maybe I'm just weird?
posted by divabat at 6:14 PM on February 22, 2006


divabat: You're not weird, you probably just adapt well. : ) But you're talking mainly about accents. I think the issue being discussed here is the tone or resonance or pitch of your voice, or whatever, which may or may not be due to your cultural background. So maybe that part about you being told that you sound "cute," "like a little kid" even though you're an adult has something to do with the fact that you're Bangladeshi, or in a much wider category, Asian. ...But in my opinion, probably not.
posted by misozaki at 7:24 PM on February 22, 2006


I've tended to notice a difference in the timbre of Native Americans. And then there's Indians, often imitated. The ease with which that timbre is imitated suggests it could have an environmental cause rather than physiological.

Trying to ascribe a difference with African-Americans is not so easy for me, especially now I've lived in Africa. The timbre of native Africans is totally unlike African-Americans. This would support cultural difference rather than physical.

Personally, I'd enjoy the challenge of a blind test. My audio discernment is quite acute, and I've been known to recognize voices faster than faces.
posted by Goofyy at 1:45 AM on February 23, 2006


« Older Sold Out to the Man - Plan me a Plan   |   Using Quicksilver to run a shell script in the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.