Friday, May 28, 2010

Putting your self into your voice

This post will be a quick one, because BayCon starts today, but I wanted to follow up on my thoughts about tone of voice that came up in the post about channels of communication.

When we speak, we communicate a lot more than just the words we say. We convey emotional messages, too. Sometimes those involve emphasis on elements of language, and sometimes they are more general-level emotional. Tone of voice can convey basic emotions like happiness and sadness, but it also conveys aspects of our sense of self - like refinement, receptiveness to approach, and gender identity. These factors can vary across cultures.

Think about the female intonation pattern that ends each sentence with a question-like rise in pitch. Not all American females use this, though I know it is very common for many Californians. When a person uses this, it makes them sound uncertain, but it also gives an impression of "cute and feminine" for some. I'm not going to go into the larger feminist issues surrounding the femininity of uncertainty here, but suffice it to say for now that adopting an intonation pattern like this can give several impressions:

1. Uncertainty
2. Cuteness
3. Femininity
4. Annoyingness

The interesting part to me is that the choice of the rising intonation pattern is not likely to be made consciously, and that it does have a definite effect of annoying people who aren't accustomed to it, i.e. who haven't learned, or accepted, the association of this pattern with femininity.

Here's a second example, in differences between English and Japanese. In English, a male speaking voice is considered to be attractive when it's low but relatively smooth. A female speaking voice is higher, but when it's pitched to be sultry and attractive, it's lower. In the context of popular singing, high male (tenor) voices often make for success, as do lower women's voices. [Though this is of course not exclusive, and both very low male and very high female voices are an important part of opera.] The contrast in Japanese is that the manly male voice is low and not necessarily smooth, and the attractive female voice differs even further, being quite high-pitched and airy. If you've ever watched Pokémon videos you might have noticed that the female character's voice is quite high and can sounds to an English-speaker's ear overly perky and babyish. A lower tone of voice in females is not considered attractive, but rather masculine, and indicates lack of refinement.

What does that mean for someone like me, a learner of Japanese who is initially an English speaker? Well, in fact it has interesting consequences. If I speak Japanese in the same tone of voice that I'm accustomed to using in English, I don't come across as "myself." I suppose I'd describe my intended manner as feminine but confident and straightforward - but the tone that accomplishes this in English is much lower than it is in Japanese. So, to portray myself as myself in Japanese, I speak Japanese in a higher pitch than I do English. English speakers often find this funny, and it is, even for me.

I think there are lots of possibilities for playing with this in subtle ways in a story. Xinta, one of the characters who appears in my novelette "The Eminence's Match," has quite a high voice. This to him is partly his natural voice (tenor) and partly a sign of refinement - but to members of the undercaste he encounters in the novel where he appears, it makes him appear very feminine. This entirely changes their assessment of what he's capable of, and leads them (for example) to underestimate him as a fighter.

It's something to think about.


  1. When talking to kids, I pitch my voice higher than when I'm talking to adults. While running rides this weekend, I noticed the difference and thought of this article. I also found that it was hard to avoid the rising pitch.

  2. Interesting, Jaleh. Now I feel evil (heh heh) for making you self-conscious...

  3. As a woman with a somewhat low voice, I lower my pitch for French and raise it for Japanese, but not by all that much (sometimes more - I don't speak Japanese that often and when I do I'm not sure how to present myself). If I get annoyed (in Japanese) I lower it again, but if I get excited the pitch goes up in all three languages. I wish I could change that, though, because it wears out my voice quickly and I think it sounds bad.

    I had a classmate, a big (6'2" or so?) athletic guy who was planning to go to Japan. He had a very deep voice, and the teacher was constantly trying to get him to raise the pitch of his voice or to smile so he wouldn't terrify small children once he got there.

  4. Cool stuff, Thryn. I think much of this raising and lowering is actually relative to the natural pitch of a person's voice, rather than absolute (having to get up to a particular pitch). I think your classmate would probably have done well to raise the pitch of his voice for Japan, because at his size he was going to come across as pretty imposing already!