Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Of Pitch, Politics, and Phony Psychology

We've discussed before the sometimes maddening advice we receive on how women should modulate the pitch of our voices and our intonation if we want to be taken seriously. The message has been that, for a woman's ideas to be respected, she must voice her insights using the lower registers of her range while simultaneously using typically female patterns of intonation, like ending sentences on an 'up glide,' to avoid sounding aggressive. Of course, we are warned, overuse of the non-threatening up-glide can make us seem shallow or insecure - so women must strike a constant balance between sounding authoritative and sounding, well, sweet. Here in the States, this sort of hyper-attention given to vocal registers and intonation seems to be aimed mainly at women, particularly those running for political office.

For speakers of Japanese, however, both sexes seem to conform to strictly gendered linguistic modes. Ever since he expressed some skepticism that Japanese could be much more gendered than English, Mark Liberman of Language Log has been receiving lots of emails from Japanese students and speakers that report a marked distinction between men's and women's registers and intonation. So Liberman designed and conducted an experiment:
For a start, I took some recordings of telephone conversations made about a dozen years ago in the "CallHome" project, and published by the Linguistic Data Consortium in 1996 and 1997. There were 120 Japanese conversations of about half an hour each; I decided to focus on 18 conversations that involved one male and one female participant. (The rest of the conversations involved two males, two females, or -- more than one participant on each side of the conversation). For comparison, I took the 27 CallHome English conversations with the same characteristic -- just two participants, one male and one female.

I pitch-tracked all of the conversations using the get_f0 program from the ESPS software system. [This was originally written by Dave Talkin based on an algorithm by George Doddington -- this is the pitch tracker used in WaveSurfer from KTH in Stockholm, but I used a standalone version available as part of a free package here.]

This produces quite a bit of data -- around four and a half million pitch values, divided among the four categories of nationality and sex.

Liberman found that:

...sure enough, the Japanese speakers are more gender-polarized -- the male Japanese speakers are pitching their voices somewhat lower (overall) than the male Americans, while female Japanese speakers are overall somewhat higher-pitched than female Americans....Overall, the Japanese (in this sample) separate the sexes by one to three semitones more than the Americans do. Since each semitone corresponds to a pitch difference of about 5%, this is a difference with a certain amount of oomph.

Yet, unlike much of the sociological research we've discussed in the past, Liberman is not content to overstate his conclusions and call it a day. Instead, he reminds us that:

I picked the calls purely on the basis of nationality and sex, but my sample was not controlled for age, class, caller's relationship to callee, or for the interaction of those categories. So perhaps we've discovered that male Japanese students and their mothers tend to polarize their pitch ranges; or that American married couples tend to harmonize their pitch ranges; or something else entirely. I haven't looked into the ages and relationships of the participants in these conversations, so I don't mean to suggest that these explanations are likely ones -- I'm just spinning out some ideas about things that might be going on.

Having earned his right to be critical of research that bases ridiculously sweeping conclusions on differences found in tiny, homogeneous samples, Liberman goes on to lambaste "This is your brain on politics," recently published in the New York Times:

I've cited many cases where brain imaging studies involving a handful of subjects -- and often with marginal results on those -- have been interpreted as telling us something about men and women in general, or boys and girls in general, or members of other general categories. For example, here's a study of 9 boys and 10 girls used to argue that "Girls and boys behave differently because their brains are wired differently"; here's a study of 10 female and 10 male medical students at UCLA used to argue that "Women really do enjoy a good laugh as much as you do; they are just wired to focus on different aspects of humor."

A beautiful example of the same thing was published yesterday in the New York Times: Marco Iacoboni et al., "This is your brain on politics"...

Head on over to enjoy the rest of Liberman's insights on this study, and his snark. It's another good read, brought to you by the rock-star of grammarians.


Casmall said...

Its amazing how common this notion is that pitch and tone affect how womens opinions are received. I remember several female grad students and med students being told this by professors. Is there any data to back this up?

La Pobre Habladora said...

No data, exactly... but plenty of expert opinions! Take "John Daly, a University of Texas communications professor who has written a book about persuasion," who the WSJ quotes as saying "Pitch is largely determined by anatomy -- a bigger voice box creates a deeper voice...A deep voice connotes dominance, expertise and competence...A high-pitched voice, on the other hand, suggests nervousness, excitability, sometimes even wackiness."

And then there is the afore mentioned Beth McGuire, voice coach, who warns of pitch problems for Hillary Clinton.