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