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Vocal Timbre and Authoritative Speech

While language has its own, strictly autonomous linguistic norms, it is also a cultural phenomenon and therefore dependent on broader cultural norms. When it comes to vocal timbre and vocal register, speakers of American English generally display a fairly wide spectrum of loudness and quality along the high/low axis. In the latter respect, male speakers (whose larynxes are larger than that of females) typically utilize the lower vocal range, as contrasted with females, who favor the higher one. In some cultures, like the Japanese, it is considered unseemly for a female voice to be low, just as it is for a male voice to be high. No such rigid criteria of seemliness or appropriateness apply to the contemporary American situation.

However, there is no gainsaying the fact that high voices in American males and low ones in females are perceived differently. Any person who speaks American English is perceived to have greater authority when their habitual vocal timbre and vocal register are at the lower end of the scale. Thus males who speak with a squeaky voice run the risk of being identified as effeminate––with all the properties that designation connotes. Similarly, female voices that are inordinately high tend to be identified with immaturity and lack of authority. Conversely, a female who speaks in a low vocal register is automatically judged to have greater authoritativeness. Her voice alone already associates her more closely with male speech, with its default perception as authoritative vis-à-vis female speech.

It should be pointed out that the high-low scale with respect to vocal timbre and register is not culturally arbitrary and is semeiotically natural, i. e., diagrammatic. There is a natural relation, on the one hand, between the substantiality of the acoustic signal on the physical side and the substantiality––alias authoritativeness––of the linguistic content (words) carried by that signal, on the other. The lower register, when used for speech, is acoustically more robust in every way in comparison to the higher one. The association between the timbre of the spoken word and the authoritativeness of what is said is thus semeiotically sealed regardless of the content, with all this implies for the relation between gender and power.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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