The science of speech and gender

Over at PLOS blogs, Emily Anthes has a fascinating interview with Eliza Gray, a reporter at The New Republic, who just published a long article about the push for transgender rights in the United States. In that article, Gray wrote about 56-year-old Caroline Temmermand, who attends speech therapy to learn how to talk in a way that we would culturally understand as female. Part of what makes this interesting is that a "feminine voice" isn't something that just comes with the right hormones. And it's not just about pitch, either. Instead, it's built up over years of subtle socio-cultural training. I learned it from the time I was an infant. Women like Caroline Temmermand have to explicitly practice.

EA: So, how does speech therapy work for someone who’s transitioning? What does it involve?

EG: They go once a week, sometimes twice a week if they’re really eager to speed things up, and they do different vocal exercises. Pitch is one of the most important markers. Men on average speak at 110-120 [Hertz], gender neutral is 145-165, and women are 210-220. In most cases the goal is to try to get to gender neutral, which basically means that if you called somebody on the phone, and they speak in what’s known as the gender neutral pitch, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell if they were a man or a woman.

So that’s the first piece, but along with that, they have to learn other things, like posture and speech intonation. Speech intonation is how much your voice goes up and down in a sentence. Men tend to speak in a very monotone, even tone. Women speak in many, many different pitches; as they speak they go up and down, they go high, they go low. So that’s really important–a person who’s transitioning needs to learn how to use that range in their voice.

They also practice moving the resonance of their voice up higher. Men speak in their chests. If you’re a man and you say a word, if you put your hand on your chest you’ll feel a vibration. If you’re a woman, you speak in your face. So that’s another thing they try to work on—they move that resonance from deep in their bodies higher up.

Another thing is women speak more precisely. They enunciate their words. Men don’t do that as well, so men actually have to learn to articulate their words more precisely to sound like a believable woman.

They’ll go to a loud place as well to practice voice. Because in a loud Starbucks, a man will just speak with greater volume—so he’ll speak louder—and a woman will tend to speak higher, tend to raise her pitch higher to be heard over the din.

So they practice things like that. The problem with just going with pitch, even though it’s a very important marker, is that if a man speaks like a man in every aspect except for pitch, he’s going to sound like a man talking in a falsetto. So all of these other aspects are about trying to come up with a voice that is real and like the way people actually speak, rather than just trying to talk as high as you can.

Image: Speak up, make your voice heard, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from howardlake's photostream


    1. That’s actually mentioned several times in the article ; FtM trans take testosterone, a hormone that, among other things, tends to lower their natural pitch. Hence, they tend to not need that kind of training as much as MtF trans, who take oestrogens, hormones that do not modify one’s voice.

    2. Before puberty, boys and girls both have roughly equal length vocal cords. The length of the cords determine the basic pitch of your voice. In puberty, testosterone causes the boys’ vocal cords to lengthen, lowering the pitch of their voice. In FTM transgendered men, testosterone causes the vocal cords the lengthen, naturally lowering the pitch of their voice. In MTF trans women, however, estrogen cannot cause the vocal cords to shrink. Some have surgery to shorten the vocal cords, but it’s a pretty risky procedure. FTM transmen do, of course, still have to learn the speech patterns of men. However, because it’s more socially acceptable to be a masculine woman than to be a feminine man, many of them have been speaking like men since their teens. All they need to complete the voice picture is to lower their pitch, and the testosterone takes care of that.

  1. nice summary of how biological, social, and performance based (individuals work to sound a particular way) factors contribute to gendered ‘voice’. heed caution with the ‘men enunciate less’ comment tho – that smells a little bit like outdated work stereotyping gendered language, there are plenty of men who enunciate, and women who don’t. See the work by Kira Hall, Mary Bucholtz, and perhaps Judith Butler for contemporary theories on language and gender. 

  2. If you read the linked article, the answer is actually “most trans men seem not to bother doing vocal training, for a variety of reasons.”

    1. I think it’s easier for women and trans men to have or adopt male speech patterns than vis versa. I joke all the time that I sound like a 12 year old boy and I’ve had more than one person over the phone assume that (I have a brother a couple years younger than me and when I was a teen on several occasions I answered the phone and had the caller ask my mom or dad if it was their son who answered). Part of that I think is our culture, boys are bombarded far more with the message that they can’t be “girly” while girls might get teased for being tomboys but don’t get nearly the level of abuse a feminine boy receives,.

  3. Back before VLC compensated the sound frequency when slowing down video speed, what I noticed was that if you slowed down playback speed on a TV show, the women started to sound like “effeminate” gay men and the men started to sound like tough-guy morons.

    Not sure what this proves, but to me it illustrated a divide between the sexes. At a lower pitch with slower delivery, even “wimpy” men sounded “macho”, but women sounded like they were transvestites. To me this indicated there’s something “female” that “feminized” gay men are imitating in their cadence.

  4. I completely fail to see what is the point of this vocal training but I have something to relate about the ‘women speak more precisely. They enunciate their words‘. Well, with my wife we are climbers and when it’s hard to hear each others due to distance and/or wind, the trick is to slow the speech down, use a lower tone (bass carries farther) and enunciate. My wife is unable to do that and does the exact opposite: she speaks faster and faster and at a higher and ever more unnerved pitch each time.

  5. Paul Constant, a straight man who in his words had “exactly 37 hairs on his chest,” wrote a good piece for Seattle’s “The Stranger” on what it means to be a “non-masculine” man. 

    Searching for a better understanding of what it means to be “masculine,” he interviewed several professionals who work with transgendered people, as well as a group of local drag kings, the Royal Knights, on their experiences and viewpoints on what they feel it means to be masculine, on stage and in day-to-day life.

    He also had the Royal Knights (the DKings) transform him into the type of hyper-macho dude who had bullied him as a kid. The re-styling came with a ton of good-natured coaching and kidding on how to embody a hyperbolic version of a stereotypical male.

    The article is well-researched, thoughtful and definitely worth a read if you’re interested in gender roles and the substantial behavioral changes that FtM (FAAB) guys have to learn and practice if their goal is to pass.

    It’s an insightful piece and provides more perspective on gender roles and what expectations society places on an individual to conform to ideal model of femininity and masculinity.

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