freeze! how low can you go?

September 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

Recently the media have been reporting on voice studies showing that women prefer deep masculine voices. Well this might be a given but perhaps the assumptions hidden in the research should be teased out.

As usual the non-social scientists link gender preferences and the like to a project of evolution. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for evolution … more of it I say. The voice research reported such as this in the Belfast Telegraph links this to partner choice.  Women, they report, are evaluating genetic health of men by their voices.  So presumably the women tested were self-identifying heterosexual women. This is not stated in the media article, nor whether they were in the age-band for reproductivity.


A more fun experiment was conducted Puts Gaulin and Verdolini (2005) reported in Evolution and Human Behaviour had the experiment subjects participate in a mock dating game!!!

The developmental and anatomical causes of human voice sexual dimorphisms are known, but the evolutionary causes are not. Some evidence suggests a role of intersexual selection via female mate choice, but other evidence implicates male dominance competition. In this study, we examine the relationships among voice pitch, dominance, and male mating success. Males were audio recorded while participating in an unscripted dating-game scenario. Recordings were subsequently manipulated in voice pitch using computer software and then rated by groups of males for dominance. Results indicate that (1) a masculine, low-pitch voice increases ratings of men’s physical and social dominance, augmenting the former more than the latter; and (2) men who believe they are physically dominant to their competitor lower their voice pitch when addressing him, whereas men who believe they are less dominant raise it. We also found a nonsignificant trend for men who speak at a lower pitch to report more sexual partners in the past year. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that male intrasexual competition was a salient selection pressure on the voices of ancestral males and contributed to human voice sexual dimorphism

What is interesting about the voice studies is that they covertly acknowledge social influences – men who believed they were less dominant raised their voices. This surely is a social judgement on the part of the male subjects of the experiment. Are they not reverting to social stereotypes due to lack of more information about the males?

What is also interesting about the dimorphism of the human voice with respect to sex/gender is that the differentials between adult male and female voices are culturally conditioned. The pitch differences in Japanese gendered voices are far greater than European voice pitch differences. How would an evolutionary account explain this?


an accidental bilingual moment

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ordering at a great restaurant the other day, the waitperson ran through the specials from her clipboard. The fish of the day she announced was hake

which she pronounced [ha:ke:] as if the word was in te reo Māori. In fact the fish name hake is resolutely European with recorded references back to the 14th century according to the OED. But I thought it was a lovely moment and it got me wondering what triggered her pronunciation. Of course there is the fish hoki an extremely important one in New Zealand waters (and your filet-o-fish). Not many of us would be familiar with its anglophone names, blue grenadier or NZ whiptail nice descriptive name there! or … curiously blue hake!.
In fact the two fish are distant cousins. Both belong to the merlucciidae family which includes the cod-ish fishes, though, they are in different sub-branches, or genera if you want to be fancy.
So there maybe a fishy connection, but I think there are more things about hoki/hake that conspired against our waitress than that. The wordshape is suggestive of Polynesian phoneme inventories and syllable structure.

The genre of menus itself might have had an influence on her processing of the word. The lexicon of restaurant-worthy food or cuisine is of course multingual – (cuisine, for example!) – she had already used Italian sourced terms polenta, and French, paté and if I remember there was something Spanish-ish too.
I would be interested to know what other forms in English might trigger an accidental Māori reading and vice versa!

ed’s note: oddly this is not the first entry about fishnames!

Linguistic profiling test

September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Can you hear ethnicity? Linguistic profiling is the science of recognising identity features such as gender age and ethnicity. Most people are familiar with speech patterns of particular groups within their general community though may not be able to describe exactly what it is that they are hearing.  Forensic linguists on the other hand relying on their knowledge of acoustic phonetics, and social dialects can often tell a lot more about a voice.  A new career for you? Take the test and see…

OED updates gender …

September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The latest Word of the Day from the OED to land in my box also informs me that the last new inclusions and updates are ready for our perusal. So off I trawl to see that woman and gender are two entries in the greatest dictionary on Earth that have been reworked. I thought it might be interesting to compare the 2011 online entry for gender and that in the two volume-with-accompanying-magnifying glass version of a colleague from 1981.

The noun gender appears in the first volume of the 1981 OED on p 1127 with four senses in the following order

1.  kind, sort or class

2. grammatical gender – i.e. the marking of nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter

3. sex

This category now has the proviso only jocular and seems to contain a few quotes from the medieval period to the late 19th century ending with a piece from the daily News, 17 July 1896 – as to the success in the work one does, surely that is not a question of gender either.

Hmmm jocular? How do you tell?

4. Product, offspring (now rare)

‘Such a gender of filth that great frog left behind him’ is the quote from Bastwick(‘s?) Letany which supports that.


The 2011 supplement begins with

1. grammatical gender

2. A class of things with related properties or characteristics

This gender of diseases is incurable wrote Matthews in The Unlearned Alchemist 1662

Sense 3 of 1981 is now 2b, the frog quote remains but Matthews’ Unlearned Alchemist makes an appearance here too…

3. Men and women viewed as a group.

This sense has a number of subsenses including

the state of being a man or a woman as cultural or social descriptions rather than biological factors

Another secondary meaning of this sense is ‘electronic gender’, by which i mean the kinds of plugs male and female that computers might have

Below is the dominant meaning of the third sense and I wonder how many are outraged by the gender = sex implication!

a. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; = sex n.1 1. Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.


Following the sense is a nicely illustrated list of phrases and compounds made from gneder and other parts  – including gender-bender, genderblender, and genderfuck, gender gap, gender bias.  None of these appear in the earlier edition.


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