Vocal Pitch and Social Rank.

David Robson reported recently for BBC WorkLife about some interesting studies:

Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women aged 18–25 years. The researchers compared archival recordings of women talking in 1945 with more recent recordings taken in the early 1990s. The team found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over five decades – from an average of 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#). That’s a significant, audible difference.

The researchers had carefully selected their samples to control for any potential demographic factors: the women were all university students and none of them smoked. The team also considered the fact that members of the more recent group from the 1990s were using the contraceptive pill, which could have led to hormonal changes that could have altered the vocal chords. Yet the drop in pitch remained even when the team excluded those women from their sample. Instead, the researchers speculated that the transformation reflects the rise of women to more prominent roles in society, leading them to adopt a deeper tone to project authority and dominance in the workplace. […]

In one experiment, Joey Cheng of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked groups of four to seven participants to perform an unusual decision-making task that involved ranking the items that an astronaut would need to survive a disaster on the moon. And at the end, she also asked each member to (privately) describe the pecking order of the group and to rank each member’s dominance. Recording the participants’ discussions throughout the task, she found that most people quickly shifted the pitch of their voice within the first few minutes of the conversation, changes that predicted their later ranking within the group.

For both men and women, the people who had lowered their pitch ended up with a higher social rank, and were considered to be more dominant in the group, while the people who had raised their pitch were considered to be more submissive and had a lower social rank. “You were able to predict what happened to the group, in terms of the hierarchies, just from these initial moments,” Cheng says.

Suggestive (if unsurprising) results, though of course one would want more confirmation. Thanks, Kobi!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The immediate confounding factor that occurs to me is that Australian young women today are almost certainly significantly taller than the women of 1945. Bigger bodies, longer vocal cords.

  2. David, you beat me to it.

    I was doubly impressed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the first time I heard her speak. It’s impressive enough that she instantly went from a poiltical rookie to an influential leader. But that she did it as a woman with a high-pitched voice is even more so.

  3. I’d like to see them run this experiment on uptalk, since I believe uptalk is often involuntary, a sign of a low status person needinng affirmation. Essentially asking a metaquestion while making a statement–is what I’ve said worth listening to?

  4. This is the range of quoted fundamental frequencies in previous studies (year and F₀ in Hz), from the quoted paper of Pemberton et al. The last one is their own:

    1924 ….. 318
    1934 ….. 242-256

    1945 ….. 224
    1951 ….. 214
    1953 ….. 200
    1970 ….. 217
    1981 ….. 197
    1981 ….. 224
    1988 ….. 196
    1990 ….. 199
    1992 ….. 203
    1992 ….. 202
    1993 ….. 206

    To say that it dropped 20 Hz from 1945 to 1993 is a stretch, statistically speaking.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Too often, statistical claims themselves are a stretch, speaking in terms of common sense. All you need to do is look up the data, as you have done, and subject it to a “Fermi estimate” such as: does this data provide even superficial support for the claim ?

  6. Ryan: I would guess uptalk more often signifies modesty, not insecurity, like saying “if you please”.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    More often, less often … Maybe we can agree on “modesty as a mask for insecurity” as a further possibility. That’s a kind of false modesty.

    I have discussed uptalk many times over the phone with my sister in the States. We agree that there’s no need to insist on finding modesty or insecurity in all cases. Uptalk can be regarded as an alternative to adding “right?”, or “or not?”, or “if you follow me” at the end of certain statements. It is equifinal with those practices. I refer to the distinction between intention and function, as explained in Zweckbegriff und Systemrationalität by Luhmann in 1968.

  8. That’s what I meant by “modesty”. It just emphasizes not being arrogant, independently of how certain you are of what you are saying.
    I once heard a grad student give a talk where pretty much every sentence was in uptalk. It was impressive. I don’t remember anything else about the talk.

  9. My impression from discussions of uptalk is that, at least for certain demographics, it has stopped meaning anything special and has just become the default intonation. Is that impression wrong?

  10. Stu Clayton says

    Which certain demographics ? Young women etwa ?

  11. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    I have noticed it myself that women in old Polish movies from the 50s-70s seem to have unusually high-pitched voices, from today’s perspective. Like little birds 🙂

  12. David Marjanović says

    My impression from discussions of uptalk is that, at least for certain demographics, it has stopped meaning anything special and has just become the default intonation. Is that impression wrong?

    No. It’s definitely the default for some people – unambiguous men included.

    And I have two more origin stories for it to offer: uncertainty over whether you want to continue the sentence; aggressive rhetorical questions.

  13. AJP Crown says

    I’ve noticed that many Norwegian men speak their native language several octaves lower than they speak English. I’ve no idea why. With Norwegian women there’s no difference.

  14. David Eddyshaw says


    Oh, dear. Yes, indeed; they seem to have made a paper out of statistical noise by attaching a zeitgeisty explanation to their supposed findings, of a sort designed to catch the eye of a journalist.

    I can’t access the paper, paywalled by Evilsier. Neither the summary nor the breathless BBC journalist (of course) mention sample size or anything like that.

    Language Log mentioned the business some time back about women’s pitches relative to men’s across languages, which as I recall seemed fairly robust.

    It occurs to me that yet another confounding factor is the question of who the various women were talking with in their different samples. Unless the social situations were matched, the inference that any differences were primarily related to the time that the recordings were made is surely unwarranted.

  15. But adding a question at the end of a statement doesn’t necessarily mean modesty or insecurity. It can mean, “I am demanding assent.” The English do this. It’s infuriating.

    My wife and I were once in an English town trying to find the train station, which was invisible from the main road. We finally found it, only to see our train pulling out of the gate. We asked the ticket seller for the next train. Four hours, he told us. Four hours! we groaned,
    “Well, you shood-er bin here on time, innit?’ he said.
    I doubt he was expressing modesty or insecurity.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Did he actually intone that as a question? Because many people clearly don’t, they just use innit like like, innit, as illustrated by the following story (supposedly true, but I strongly doubt that):

    Young woman (probably blonde, too) phones a taxi company and says “I need a cab, innit.” After several more tries that exasperate everyone, she gets a cabinet delivered to the airport she’s in.

  17. I’ve noticed that many Norwegian men speak their native language several octaves lower than they speak English

    My spoken pitch in Hebrew tends to be significantly lower than in English. (I’m basically native in both.) Of the other languages in which I have reasonable speaking competence, Spanish seems to be like Hebrew while French is lower still. Not sure why this is — I’ve never given it any conscious thought.

  18. @David Marjanović: Your joke about a cabinet being delivered to an airport reminded me of a somewhat disturbing incident I witnessed at Logan Airport in Boston around 1999 or 2000. Logan had probably the worst security of any major American airport at that time. (That was my own subjective impression, during a time period when I was traveling around the country quite a bit. Apparently Al Qaeda agreed, based on where they chose to board the planes they hijacked on 9/11.) The worst incident I saw was related to construction that was going on there at the time. A couple construction workers rolled a long row of cabinets up to the security checkpoint and were waved past with no apparent thought about checking what might be inside, and I walked to my gate knowing that if somebody really wanted to get weapons past security, it would not be especially difficult.

    @TR: In any language except my native English, I also tend to use a lower speaking pitch. This includes German, in which I was at one time fairly fluent, plus some Hebrew and Spanish.

  19. David Marjanović says

    I make a more or less conscious effort to increase my pitch range, especially upwards, in English and French, because they have more intonation than German.

    (Edit: in Russian, too, except I’ve spoken very little Russian ever. Russian, too, has a lot more intonation than German.)

  20. AJP Crown says

    TR: I’ve never given it any conscious thought.

    Well, give it some conscious thought and report back. You’re my only lead.

  21. because they have more intonation than German.

    Yet standard “educated” American has less intonation than Austrian German. (And if you respond „na geh”, you’ll be proving my point).

  22. David Marjanović says

    Even that can be said in a flat monotone. But I’d rather say „do ned im Ernst” in a flat monotone.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    My experience is that Badisch, Bayrisch, Wienerisch and Berlinerisch can involve a lot of intonation and I believe that there is inside speakers of other dialects of German an inner Italian, who is only allowed to break out im Chorverein, when listening to Blasmusik or during Fasching/Karneval and football matches.

  24. Ellen K. says

    “Several octaves” is surely an exaggeration or misestimation. That’s a HUGE difference.

  25. @Ellen K.: I just assumed “several steps” was actually meant.

  26. Me too.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Actually, yes, Viennese is spoken so slowly it can accumulate a lot of intonation. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard “did they shit into your brain” with a pitch rise over the last three syllables…

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