Social Markers in Speech

Freshman WATU Writing Seminar:
Language and Popular Culture, LING 057.


The table below is reproduced from Addington, D. W. (1968), "The relationship of selected vocal characteristics to personality perception." Oklahoma State University Monographs (Social Science Series), No. 15. Page 70.

The table (and article) refers to "voice quality manipulation" meaning that these are features speakers can control as opposed to some other kinds of vocal variables, that may not be under speakers' control (or they do not perceive them to be under their control; they might learn to control them with training, etc.) The table correlates these features with "personality attribution," meaning the kinds of social or personal traits that other speakers attribute to them because of the voice quality feature. These attributions are usually learned and are part of sociolinguistic "knowledge" that speakers bring to a situation. Some of them are definitely stereotypical, i.e. the notion that an orotund voice "'means" vigorous and aesthetic or perhaps suave (in the case of male voices) is culture-bound. Not all speakers of a language may agree with this; different subcultures, or people with different backgrounds, may not share all these perceptions. But studies of these effects yield some reliable results, as portrayed in the table. Note that the voice qualities vary, in some cases dramatically, from perceptions of men to perceptions of women.

Effects of Voice Quality Manipulation
on Personality Attribution
Male Speakers
Increased Means tendency to be perceived as more:
Breathy youthful and artistic
Flat sluggish, cold, withdrawn
Nasal unattractive, lethargic, foolish, self-effacing, neurotic
Tense cantankerous
Throaty stable
Orotund vigorous and aesthetic or perhaps suave
Rate animated and extroverted
Pitch variety dynamic and extroverted
Female Speakers
Increased Means tendency to be perceived as more:
Breathy feminine, pretty, callow, highly strung, petite, effervescent
Thin immature, mentally and physically disorganized, interested in others
Flat sluggish, cold, masculine
Nasal crude, unattractive, foolish, lethargic, unemotional, self-effacing
Tense highly strung, pliable
Throaty oafish, or like a `clod'
Orotund aggressive and aesthetic or urbane
Rate extroverted, highly strung, inartistic, un-cooperative
Pitch variety dynamic and extroverted


And just for good measure, in case you think this is all made up, here's a cartoon that indicates that actors can make themselves sound 'taller' and also sound as if they have more hair. (Note the milk-toast voice-over actor who's supposed to produce this effect.), last modified November 3, 1999.

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