A researcher at the University of Colorado has presented new evidence
on how word pronunciation affects gender recognition among listeners.
While this may not be a great revelation to those who provide or receive speech training for gender reassignment, the story has significance in further documenting the social construction of gender identity.
The story appears on a noteworthy site called RedOrbit (see link below) on science and health. According to the study, “the style of a person’s speech may help listeners guess their gender just as much as the high or low pitch of their voice.” The researcher examined transgendered people during transition to figure out how humans associate gender categories with different characteristics of speech.
“The study was based on the doctoral research of Lal Zimman, a PhD in linguistics at CU Boulder. While working on his dissertation, Zimman identified and tested two key features of speech besides pitch that humans use to perceive gender – the way people pronounce “s” sounds and the degree to which they intensify certain vocal sounds when they articulate (a feature known to linguists as ‘resonance’).
“In the past, gender differences in the voice have been understood, primarily, as a biological difference,” Zimman explained. “I really wanted to look at the potential for other factors, other than how testosterone lowers the voice, to affect how a person’s voice is perceived.”
“Specifically, Zimman wanted to find out whether the style of a person’s speech affected how low their voice needed to drop before people began to perceive it as a male voice. In order to do this, Zimman recruited volunteers for his study who were undergoing a sex change from female to male.One critical step in this process requires the patients to receive regular injections of testosterone, a steroid hormone that is produced naturally in both sexes but at levels 7-8 times higher in men. High testosterone levels are responsible for a number of characteristically male traits, one of which includes the deep tenor of the male voice.
“What Zimman discovered was the voices of his participants could have a high pitch yet still be perceived as a male voice if the speaker pronounced their “s” sounds at a lower frequency than the average female. These lower-frequency “s” sounds can be produced by moving the tongue further away from the teeth when speaking.
“What this indicates, say experts, is those characteristics we typically associate with male and female speech are not purely biological.
“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 Kira Hall, Zimman’s thesis adviser and Associate Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at CU Boulder.
“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.”