Why Do We Sound The Way We Do?


(Full disclosure-I'm not sure. But here are some interesting facts and posits.)

There are around 7000 languages and let's just say, a whole lot of different cultures. How do our anatomy, sex, language, and culture affect the sound of our voices? To what extent do voices change based on current social and cultural norms and doctrines?

Let's talk about sex, baby.

Men. Polish men speak in a higher vocal pitch than American men. German men are somewhere in between. Mexicans expect the male voice to be louder than Americans do. Men's vocal ranges have expanded as service industry jobs have grown, necessitating greater social skills (as compared to occupations that depended more heavily on brawn). A male broadcaster today is expected to have a far greater expressive range than would have been the case 50 years ago. Black American men use a wider pitch range than White American men.

Ladies. In almost every culture, women speak in deeper voices than Japanese women. Swedish women's voices are lower than Americans, and Dutch women's are lower than Swedish women's. Anne Karpf, in her fantastic book The Story of the Human Voice: A Remarkable Talent proposes that since vocal difference is one way of expressing social difference, and Dutch society differentiates less between the ideal male and female image, there are fewer differences. The Dutch also find medium and low pitch to be more attractive than high pitched voices.

Women's voices have deepened significantly over the past 50 years. Is it because they felt pressure to fit in with their male counterparts in the workplace? Or, did women speak with higher voices in the 1950s because there was such a clear demarkation of male and female roles? Right before the 50s, there were plenty of women's voices with strong deep sounds. As WWII made it possible to find work, including on the radio, it also allowed them to sound different on screen. Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis... these were strong voices. Women's voices got strong again (deepened) in the early 70s, when feminism became a force.

To what extent are we playing a role when we open our mouths to speak? How much of it is authentic, genuine self? Why do styles of speaking come and go? The trans-Atlantic accent and fast patter of old movies, the dumb-sounding voices of women in shows and movies from the 50s and 60s, the up-speak and glottal fry you hear a lot today... Do you sound different today than you did 10, 20 years ago (question is dependent upon your age)? If so, why, do you think?

What do our voices tell us about ourselves, and society, that we might not even be aware of?

When we speak, we're sending out a lot more information than just the meaning of the words. Listen up. There's a lot to learn!

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