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Review of Literature

This section gives a brief overview of the biological versus cultural factors that play a role in the production and perception of voice pitch among young men. As readers are likely aware, the mean (reading) pitch values reported in the literature differ cross-culturally among comparably aged speakers of the same gender and as such they are at least in part culturally determined. The fact that “normative” values reported in sociolinguistic and clinical literature are borrowed and traded between dialects and languages belies the underlying essentialist assumption in these fields. This assumption is that the mean (reading) pitch value is predominantly a result of biological forces only. If pitch variation were truly defined by sheer biology, we would also expect speakers to produce it and listeners to evaluate and relate to it homogeneously across the board. While this is not a new concept, a brief survey of the evidence is in order to lay out the assumptions that formed the basis of our hypotheses. We will give an overview of the perception of the speaking pitch and show evidence of how listeners are ready to attribute identity traits and often voluntary, agentive use to the gendered pitch. These uses are strongly embedded in the societal use of language, so the mechanistic interpretation of speech/speaker perception results does not acknowledge the intersectional nature of speaker identity. In this chapter, we use the term pitch with the understanding that the Hertz (Hz) values we report are in fact measures of the fundamental frequency which is the main, but not the only, acoustic correlate of pitch.

A frequently made assumption used to be that the pitch level of speech is physiologically determined and that it serves as a reflection of body size. However, a large number of studies noted an absence of any correlation between overall pitch level and the speaker’s body dimensions such as height, weight, size of larynx, and so on (Kunzel 1989; van Dommelen & Moxness 1995; Collins 2000; Gonzalez 2004). Studies since have found effects of the speaker’s biological age (e.g., Nishio & Niimi 2008; Torre & Barlow 2009), language (e.g., van Bezooijen 1995; Yamazawa & Hollien 1992), and dialects/ethnolects spoken (e.g., Awan & Mueller 1996; Deutsch et al. 2009) and between monolingual and bilingual speakers of the same language (e.g., Abu-Al-Makarem & Petrosino 2007; Ullakonoja 2007). All these strongly indicate that pitch is subject to sociocultural forces.

To give a few examples of the importance of cultural background, let’s take the physiological comparisons (Kahane 1982; Hirano, Kurita, & Nakashima 1983) that found shorter vocal folds in Japanese adult males and females than in Caucasian Americans. This would predict higher-speaking fundamental frequency for the Japanese speakers. However, we have ample evidence that Japanese females have systematically higher pitch than US females, while Japanese males typically display lower fundamental frequency than US males (cf. Yuasa 2008 and references therein). Conversely, in children the lack of sexual dimorphism or gendered difference in the available frequency range until about age seven (e.g., Bohme & Stuchlik 1995; Lee, Potamianos, & Narayanan 1999; Vorperian et al. 2005) is paired with pitch and tune/tone usage that is shaped toward gendered norms before this age (e.g., Local 1982; Ferrand & Bloom 1996; Vorperian & Kent 2007). Finally, even the pitch of a community can change over time, as demonstrated in studies about Australian women over fifty years of age (Russell, Penny, & Pemberton 1995; Pemberton, McCormack, & Russell 1998) and when we compare US men’s values across the studies, from Hollien & Shipp (1972) and Hollien & Jackson (1973) to Torre & Barlow (2009). The absence of clear correlations between pitch and biological attributes, the degree of structured pitch variation across and within speaker groups, and, most important, the presence of pitch variation among children prior to biological differentiation all indicate the importance of sociocultural factors in determining pitch variation not only in English but in other languages as well.

Now we turn our attention to the forces that shape the perception of pitch. While listeners are fairly bad at estimating speaker characteristics, they are also fairly consistent in their misjudgments such as systematically assuming that (natural or synthesized) low-pitched male speakers are tall (van Dommelen & Moxness 1995; Gonzalez 2004), are more attractive, are older and heavier, are more likely to have a hairy chest, have a more muscular body type, and pose a higher risk of infidelity (Collins 2000; Feinberg et al. 2005; O’Connor, Re, & Feinberg 2011; Simmons, Peters, & Rhodes 2011)—but only by female listeners. In Pisanski & Rendall (2011) and Pisanski, Mishra, & Rendall (2012), listeners evaluated size, masculinity, and attractiveness of male and female voices whose speaking pitch was shifted either up or down. Body size, masculinity, and attractiveness were all rated in the predictable direction between low and high natural male voices by female listeners. Male listeners, on the other hand, showed no distinction in the attractiveness ratings between the low and high male voice conditions.

Vukovic et al.’s (2010) work branches out from analyzing the speaker’s pitch in a vacuum and highlights the correlation between the pitch of the listener and his or her pitch preferences as a listener. They report that women’s own pitch predicts their preference for masculinity in men’s voices: the lower the women’s pitch, the more likely they were to prefer the lower pitch-shifted condition in men. It is, however, not uncommon for women to prefer more feminine male voices. In Puts (2005), women prefer more feminine English male voices as long-term partners and in O’Connor, Fraccaro, & Feinberg (2012) as partners are significantly more likely to invest time and effort and to be financially generous.

To date, Apicella & Feinberg (2009) is the only work on non-Western pitch perception, carried out on the Tanzanian Hazda. In their sample, both men and women viewed lower-pitched voices in the opposite sex as being better at acquiring resources (i.e., hunting and gathering). While men preferred higher-pitched women’s voices as marriage partners, women showed no overall preference for voice pitch in men. To the best of our knowledge, there is no literature on the pitch perception of Hungarian listeners or on the broader East-Central European languages.

In sum, pitch shows structured variation based on a wide variety of factors beyond body size and biological gender. This is reflected by perception as well—people have a low accuracy in determining speaker characteristics based on pitch alone. Furthermore, while general patterns are undoubtedly observed, the social evaluation of pitch can also widely vary. This makes the scarcity of data from languages other than English all the more regrettable.

In the rest of this chapter, we report on our experiment on the perception of modulated male pitch in Hungarian. The findings are, we believe, highly relevant in extending our knowledge on the perception of structured pitch variation in the world’s languages (though limited by the complete lack of data on Hungarian male pitch from production studies).

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