Race and “Voice Quality:” A Skeptic’s Viewpoint



During an unrelated Google search the other day, I stumbled upon this Yahoo Answers query:

Can you tell someone’s race from the sound of their voice? I was wondering if you could tell if someone was white or black etc by hearing their voice?

This is obviously a controversial topic. Ethnolects are real phenomena, of course, but the notion that they evince genetic differences makes me uncomfortable. Such memes have spread through the internet for years, typified by this uninformed comment (on a different message board):

Black people’s voices have a definite “blackness” to them – I’m referring specifically to the timbre or sound, before grammar, inflection, diction, etc. even come into play. This rules out the sociocultural answers (“blacks are more likely to use slang,” or “blacks tend to be more relaxed with language”, etc.) that are often given.

Don’t get me wrong: one can sometimes deduce ethnicity by voice alone. In 2011, researchers from CUNY found that young New Yorkers could ascertain, from mere recordings, whether a speaker was East Asian, African-American, Latino or “White.” The study identified factors that “cue” a listener’s expectations, one of which you can hear in this clip of comedian Cheech Marin:

Marin’s speech, like that of many Chicano-Americans, is arguably more “syllable-timed” than that of General American English, meaning that (roughly speaking) each syllable is more equal in duration. Laypeople may associate this tendency with Latino or Hispanic speech, even if they’re unaware of the connection. To be clear, though, this has nothing to do with racial genetics, but rather the influence of Spanish.

I may have strayed from the Yahoo commenter’s question, however, since “voice quality” is arguably a different animal from intonation. Indeed, the CUNY researchers found other factors along those lines, such as a type of “breathiness” which people associate with Asian-American voices. A possible example might be cellist Yo-Yo Ma‘s soothing, professorial tenor:

But how are genetics involved? After all, many Americans with immigrant backgrounds exhibit vocal qualities indicative of their ancestry. It is hard to dismiss connections between the accent of Jewish New Yorkers and their forebears’ unique Germanic language, nor those between Irish-American speech and Hiberno-English. We know that the Jewish and Irish “races” are the stuff of Victorian pseudoscience, so why discard the impact of ancestral languages on broader ethnic categories?

To be fair, I have found at least one study suggesting possible ethnic differences in vocal tract anatomy.  But what about the genetic variation within “races?” For instance, latitude, diet, and random selection produce substantial height differences between sub-regions within East Asia, Europe, and Africa. Why would the human voice be any different? The burden of proof is upon those who seek interracial genetic explanations.

**An important note, in the form of a tongue-twister: the researchers are not suggesting  that all Asian-Americans speak with this quality, but rather that Asian-Americans who speak with this quality are more easily identified as Asian-American.

Reference: Newman, M., & Wu, A. (2011). “Do you sound Asian when you speak English? Racial identification and voice in Chinese and Korean Americans’ English. American Speech, 86(2), 152-178.


About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Race and “Voice Quality:” A Skeptic’s Viewpoint

  1. K says:

    I’ve noticed that black people seem to speak whatever language they’re talking in a characteristically deep voice.

    • Inchoative says:

      Hhhhhmmmm. There could be a tiny bit of truth to that; is there a characteristically African construction of masculinity that survives across dialects? However, I think it’s more characteristically African-American. I once had some black male coworkers from the UK and Guyana at an internationally focused organization in DC. Their speech registers were not deliberately deep seeming at all.

      Excuse my mangled placement of “episode” below – I was trembling with shame for admitting to sometimes watching Dr. Phil! Now that I think about it, the “accent traitor” in that segment spoke with a higher (but not high) register than his relatives.

      • K says:

        Nope, if anything, I find native English speakers to have a more “average” voice. But listen to Africans speaking any other European language, and you might notice a pattern.

  2. Inchoative says:

    “Ethnolects are real phenomena, of course, but the notion that they evince genetic differences makes me uncomfortable. ”

    As it should, because it’s extremely ridiculous. First of all there are clearly so many counter examples; and since the un-informed commenter has a subtext of the proscriptive, it’s worth mentioned that some white people mumble, slur and otherwise butcher the language as badly as anything so-called ebonics does. I know, for example, an African-American gentleman who came from a (rare, for the era) upper-middle class background in Washington, DC, attended a prestigious private school and went to Columbia. If you spoke to him on the phone, you wouldn’t guess in a million years that he was black. You’d think you were speaking to an erudite white or Jewish professor at a NYC area university. He sounds like Michael Bloomberg, but a bit more posh!

    Now, for various reasons it seems the majority of people with such backgrounds choose to partly maintain speech patterns of their ancestors or racial peers. In fact, as embarrassing as it is to mention, there was a recent Dr. Phil that dealt with this episode. A southern black family was critical of one of their sons for deliberately losing his accent after attending college, among other behaviors felt to be non-normative within their community. This isn’t limited to black families of course. I know of a WASP family in New England where some members almost completely eschewed their regional accents – undoubtedly on purpose because they all went to the local K12 – and some have the gruffest, roughest, Boston Southie accents imaginable. (At least it seems so to me – I’m not from New England)

    Secondly, if this theory had any truth, with the wide variation in human ethnicities we’d expect to see some minor incompatibilities crop up, right? Languages obviously vary by more than the dialectical variation within any given language. “The Japanese can’t learn Dutch, even if they were born in Amsterdam. Their throats just don’t have the right shape to make those horrid ch sounds. (haha)” But of course this isn’t true at all. After a few haphazard stabs at learning Chinese, I decided I could never get used to a tonal language. But that’s due to my cultural conditioning, not my genetics; I’m actually pretty good at singing. I just don’t want to have to microtonally sing every word I’m speaking. (though I supposed I’d get used to it) But the overall truth is clearly that non-regional (or perhaps, “non region congruent”) speech variation is about 60% socio-economic (including education), and 39% performative…if there’s a genetic component, it’s about 1%.

    • “If you spoke to him on the phone, you wouldn’t guess in a million years that he was black. You’d think you were speaking to an erudite white or Jewish professor at a NYC area university. He sounds like Michael Bloomberg, but a bit more posh!”

      I think this is much more common that you might think! Having recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant “The Warmth of Other Suns,” one thing that stuck out is how relatively new a phenomenon “African American English” is in the Northern US. Northern African-Americans. Even famous African-Americans born in the 1920′s sometimes spoke much differently than one might expect. James Baldwin had a rather aristocratic East Coast-sounding accent reminiscent at times of William F. Buckley, while Malcolm X’s speech was at timers the mishmash of regional midwestern and New England that you would expect given his provenance.

      That’s one of my basic objections to race-voice arguments: they often draw evidence from particular dialects (AAVE, Multicultural British English) that are fairly recent developments.

      • Inchoative says:

        “I think this is much more common that you might think!”

        I’d wondered if it was, particularly in the Northeast or NYC metro, which I’m not as familiar w/except for vacation travel and some occasional business trips. I do remember a black woman in Boston who had much less of a Boston accent than her white coworkers – I can’t even remember but if she sounded African American, it was a relief on the comprehension front! As you say, it was certainly more common before the 1960s. (cf: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEaGBSLydwQ contrary to what I thought, he was born in Harlem, not the West Indies.)

        That being said in DC – which I resolutely insist is neither northern or southern and is in fact practically out of the continuum – I’ve hardly ever meet a professional African American who didn’t speak in at least a slight African American Vernacular. And I’ve met many of them. There is plenty of the so-called “code switching” and I think most of them, the white-collars ones at least, are aware of their accents in a way that most people with regional US accents are not. (FWIW, Baltimore is the city that truly staddles being Northern and Southern.)

    • adam cohen says:

      Inchoative:”an erudite white or Jewish professor at a NYC area university. He sounds like Michael Bloomberg, but a bit more posh!”

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by “white or Jewish professor.” Of course, there are non-White Jews (e.g., the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia), but the context of your statement makes me think that you are probably referring to Ashkenazi Jews, people like Bloomberg, Lauren Bacall, Woody Allen, etc. Are you implying that they are not White?

      • Inchoative says:

        I was afraid this might happen and I should have phrased it differently. No, of course they are white and I certainly didn’t mean to sound judeophobic. However, _without_ having read about it, I’d always felt that certain Jewish NYC accents were different from other ethnic accents in the city, and, to my ears, more agreeable. Now I read that this was identified by Labov: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_dialect
        For me it’s mostly based on my experience of people I know. My sister-in-law’s brother is Italian, from NYC, and I find his Brooklynese somewhat grating. The more upper class Jews often have just enough of an accent to let you know they are from New York, but not scream it. Hopefully that makes sense. Noami Foner probably speaks with this sort of accent. To quote the wiki article: “Many professional-class New Yorkers from high socioeconomic backgrounds often speak with less conspicuous accents; in particular, many use rhotic pronunciations instead of the non-rhotic pronunciations, while maintaining some less stigmatized features such as the low back chain shift and the short-A split (see below).” It’s probably just that the above middle class native New Yorkers I’ve met have happened to all be Jewish, and I associate that type of accent with them. I’ve always been highly observant of accents, but it’s not something I usually bother to read about in an academic or scholarly context. So forgive my recourse to life experiences.

      • James says:

        They are not just a color…White, they are European Americans and have an ethnicity just like everyone else. Thank you.

  3. John McClaine says:

    To be fair, I have found at least one study suggesting possible ethnic differences in vocal tract anatomy. But what about the genetic variation within “races?”

    What about it? Variation within races wouldn’t really disprove variation between racial group averages, unless the standard deviation of the former was comparatively large.

    My guess is that the more assimilated an ethnic group is, the more likely it seems that speech differences are biological in origin, so the “Asian voice,” which appears to stand out despite Asian-American’s English having no other recognizable characteristics, ranks pretty high on the “characteristics with a strong genetic element specific to people of a certain race” list. I’m not saying its true, necessarily, but it is a fairly reasonable assumption, and alot more easy to believe than, for example, a “Mexican” or “Somali voice.”

    The only way to really answer the question though, would probably be studies of adopted children of different genetic backgrounds, controlled for other possible factors.

    • @John,

      I feel I need to expand somewhat on my original point here, because I’ve edited some of my more specific objections to the notion of an “Asian Voice.”

      “Breathy voice” is a quality in the voice produced when the vocal cords are close enough to vibrate, but slightly further apart than normal. This is specifically the articulatory property that the researchers found to suggest an “Asian” quality to their subjects. But there is no reason to believe that the anatomical structure of one’s vocal tract would make “breathy voice” more likely. Virtually anyone could choose to speak with a breathy voice, creaky voice, head voice, chest voice or nasal voice all day long if they wished to (but they shouldn’t: it would probably mess up their vocal cords). I feel the most plausible explanation, even if deeply rooted in the furthest depths of the subconscious, is that there is some kind of underlying psychological reason that people, languages and dialects tend to gravitate toward such qualities.

      This gets at my basic point, though. The hypothesis that racial, genetic differences account for apparent “racial voices” eschews simple, intuitive reasons in favor of complicated and, in my opinion, far-fetched ones. I’m not rejecting the idea outright, I just find it significantly less plausible than sociological and psychological explanations.

  4. dw says:

    If there is any biological basis to voice characteristics, then this ought to apply to languages other than English. Do black French speakers, for example, also exhibit the qualities attributed to black English speakers?

  5. Marco says:

    i think you would have to look at how adopted children (of a different ethnicity) sound when they grow up, so that you can isolate the social factor.
    You can’t look at asian-americans or people of irish descent because there are always going to be certain specific distinctive factors they are passed down to from their parents. be it a specific use of the voice, intonation, tone or whatever it may be.
    But even then, you would have to see in what social environment the person grows up. If i was a black kid raised by whites, but i aknowledge i’m black, there would be “social pressure” on me to speak as a black.
    Where i live, in Italy, there is no distinction between how a black speaks and how a white speaks, because blacks are few and hardly form a “black community” or a subculture, like one can observe in the U.S.
    All the people i know that were adopted and raised in a local family and community sound exactly like any other person around them.

    Also, love your blog! keep up the good work

  6. Eugene says:

    It would be somewhat tricky to disentangle social factors from the physiological. Nevertheless, a careful research project could play recordings of English speaking ethnic-Asian Californians (Kristi Yamaguchi, for example) and other young California females from comparable socio-economic backgrounds. My hypothesis: there is no way that people could distinguish any difference.

    A few caveats: You would need to use voice samples from at least third generation immigrants and control for every relevant factor: social class, regional/local dialect, any degree of bilingualism…

    Your idiolect is influenced by the people you interact with every day of your life. The differences are not fundamentally physiological, though the mass of your vocal chords does determine your average pitch.

  7. Tom says:

    I think the “genetic” argument is nonsense. Look at Margaret Cho, or the black governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick. In fact, listening to one of the Boston officials on TV from another room during last night’s press conference, I was certain he was black, but when I walked in I saw he was white.

    I believe it’s all about your environment, and your tendency to blend in with the people in your family or community.

  8. idiomático says:

    I don’t think there is any connection between voice and race. Accents from your mother tongue are more determinant that any other factor.
    Regards from Spain!

  9. Could it be that the timbre of one’s voice (as the timbre of every individual instrument in a particular family) is directly related to the structure and components of the instrument — in the case of the voice, the head and all the structures of the head, e.g., mouth, nose, jaw, cartilage, skin, all the head cavities through which the voice vibrates, etc.? It’s not just the strings of an instrument (in the case of the human voice, vocal folds) that create its timbre. It would stand to reason then that different ethnic groups, sharing similarities in those structures, would tend to have a similar timbre — i.e.similar “voice quality.” No? There are, of course, variations within every sample. IMHO — just as with everything that has to do with humans — it’s probably not one OR the other, but a combination of nature AND nurture.

    • Eugene says:

      There’s a deeper problem with this. Ethnicity is cultural, so we’re really talking about racial groups if we’re talking about physiology. Our racial constructs are not scientific concepts; they are merely what we perceive when we walk around and sort people according to superficial traits, primarily skin pigmentation. So our racial categories are not really predictive of anything, much less detailed features of the vocal tract. People acquire the language of the community they grow up in. That’s what we hear.

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  11. RW says:

    When I went to college in the 70s to major in Spanish, I lived in a dorm with several Mexican-American girls from “the valley” (South Texas). They were helping me to become more fluent in Spanish, and I would try to imitate their accents. These young women were completely bilingual, and when they switched to Spanish, their voices would go up quite a bit. I always thought it was interesting that they sounded almost like little girls when speaking Spanish. Sometmes I tried to raise my voice when I switched to Spanish. Over the years, as a Spanish teacher, I’ve had a few latina students who have done the same thing. I’ve asked other people if they’ve ever noticed this, but this post is the first time I’ve read anything similar to what I noticed way back then. I always wondered if it was a possible cultural modification or practice because some of my friends had alto speaking voices in English.

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  13. C A says:

    Yes, there is a firm connection. To a very high degree, I can tell race from voice (so to speak).

    Blacks tend to have deeper and more resonant voices than whites (for whatever reason I don’t know). Irrespective of accent, I believe i can discern quite highly what race a person by listening to his or her voice.

  14. Brian Stuart says:

    I like listening to radio dramas from BBC radio – especially dramatisations of classic old novels e.g. Madame Bovary and I can easily tell when one of the actors is African. It definitely subtracts from the drama because invariably they are playing a white character and yet whenever they speak I see an African face – nothing wrong in that – but if the drama is set in 18th century England it does make things implausible. Pure blooded African voices are not just deeper – they have a different reasonance – I think it is a rougher reasonance which is probably caused by a bigger gap between the folds of flesh in the voice box. Europeans with deep voices tend to have smoother voices with less reasonance.

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  16. cas says:

    I see this question posed repeatedly with the same inevitable arguments appearing in the discussions that follow. Firstly, there is a great difference between ACCENT versus VOCAL EXPRESSION. This is where many are being confused. In the United States alone, each state, region, county, and even locale within a relatively small radius, can vary widely based on many factors. Immigration, country of origin, whether metropolitan or rural, as well as the length of time since first colonization, are all factors with regard to the evolution of accents and dialect. Each area in this country has a unique accent because no two areas are identical in their make up.

    However, when discussing whether or not a specific “sound” can be attributed to a particular race, we must disregard the many accents (as that is basically a variation in pronunciation rather than anything inherent to an ethnic group) and we must also put down our racial profiling phobia/defense mechanisms. So many people are afraid to talk about this subject (biological racial variations) whilst others are hyper-defensive. Some basic knowledge based on science, can put that to rest; there ARE differences between races…period. That DOES NOT mean that anyone is trying to comtinue with thankfully outgrown idealogy inferring separate SPECIES. Anyone that has even a slight knowledge of human biology is at least remotely aware of this fact.

    So, now that we understand that the biological differences between races is not meant to denote racial superiority, but a fact based on scientific medical evidence which has occurred as a result of OUR species adapting to the environments they inhabited, we can intelligently discuss the topic.

    Racial variation is one of the key elements when considering the cause of distinguishing vocal characteristics. The short and simple explanation is that adaptation is the direct cause. Varying climates, environmental conditions, hunting and agriculture, and (*this is extremely important) LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT. Based on the demands of regional language evolution, humans developed what was needed in order to communicate. In addition to the aforementioned factors, early tone and inflection gave rise to varying physical adaptations including sinus cavity, nasal passageway, the vestibular system, larynx, pharynx, vocal chord anatomy etc.
    It is a well known and accepted belief that children can become fluent in second or more languages if they are taught very early during their first five years. That, in part, is due to the formation of the uvula and soft palate (as well as the brains ability to recognize and adopt certain emphasis and inflection, whereas adult language students merely mimic). For instance, native French speakers have a completely different palate formation than English speakers based on the need for key sounds required for pronunciation; ie. the “R” sound is French is very difficult for French-as-second-language learners.

    As such, native Africans required their own unique physical development which they have maintained for centuries. That being said, English speaking African Americans are in fact justified when they express difficulty in certain key pronunciations which they are forced to mimic in public school (prime example ask vs aks). Why is it then that so many “educated” or wealthier blacks do not necessarily sound “black” as do their lower income urban counterparts? Primarily from my experience it is likely learned and/or pressured from early in childhood possibly resulting in slightly altered growth and development of the oral cavity, as well and racial differences dissipating with centuries of interracial procreation blurring the lines between all humans. Genetic factors that once divided the primary races such as Tay-Sachs in Eastern European Jews or sickle-cell anemia in blacks of African descent is no longer isolated to the original designees.

    Well air’ ya go, I done spoke ma’mind and I do hope y’all enjawed it, I relly do appreshate y’all lendin y’ear fer a wall an let’n me carry own that wi. I better git tho, I got’ta git ta fixin ma’beans an need’ta git’ta pillin’em taters ra’chonder. Wi’ll see y’ns later!

  17. Jkwoftw says:

    …”the notion that they evince genetic differences makes me uncomfortable.” Why? It’s exactly that type of fear that causes otherwise perfectly logical and scientific people to type wide-eyed blather like in this post. You dismiss explanations with no reason to do so other than that it offends you. I must have skipped that chapter in all my science textbooks. Unfortunately, this mentality causes a lot of embarrassing notions to become pervasive throughout the progressive community. Get the ladies on a feminist blog talking about gender differences, and then force an expert on mammalian biology to read the comments. He or she will want to gouge their eyes out in the first paragraph.

    Who cares if biology were to cause one race to honk like a seal and another to yelp like a zebra? Would pretending this doesn’t occur and trying to chalk it up to “cultural differences” really do anything to curb racism? Of course not, and even if it did, does that justify that you’re going around lying to people?

    Stop being so interested in what’s inoffensive. Be interested in what’s true. Are race and voice timbre genetically associated? I don’t know. But I sure wouldn’t come to your tendentious blog for a straight analysis (or any of the other people who get huffy and threatened by real, thorough, honest race discussion.. the irony being that these oversensitive people are usually the ones who won’t shut up about how important “honest dialogue about race” is).

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  19. Irving says:

    I am off the believe that the main difference is the American white male and the American black male. As a black man I’ve been studying everything about why people for years. Years I tell you! What we have to understand is that in America, black men are targeted all the time. It’s evident in our music, our clothing, and even in our voice, there is a stern sense of pride and cool about yourself. African and Latinos in America are by far some of the most family oriented, and soul speaking people. When Latinos talk amongst each other, it’s almost like they’re singing. And when black men talk amongst each other, it’s like a jazz solo where we’re eating for the coolest words to associate. Now if you look cool, dress cool, Walk cool, shouldn’t you also talk cool?

    Black and Latino people refuse,
    & I mean refuse
    to speak perfect English because we view the American white male as being physically and vocally lesser. there’s not too much things that are cool about white men. But I can’t say the same for Italian men, English men, Irishman, Native American men, Indian men, or Asian men in America. They all have their indicative traits that make them unique/cool. White men on the other hand are only known for weapons and iPhones. When they talk about BBQs, mudding with their trucks, and even their feelings towards their mothers they sound like psychopaths. Their voice sounds like that of a sociopath.

    black men hate sounding queer. In fact, if I had a white accent, my friends wouldn’t ask me why am I talking so white. They would ask me why am I talking so gay. And even gave can be considered an accent.you can sound black just like you can sound gay.African two were brought into America had never heard of homosexuality, or pederasty., or sexual slavery, until they met the European. Its not that white men sound nasally, or week, they sound like Clay Aiken. I’m typing and I sound black right now.

    but like I said, it’s an American thing. I love the fact that as the only black person at my job, I can say something silly like Shabap babalooba balop bamboo! and all they can do is ask me my opinion of Macklemore

  20. Ram Das says:

    Did you ever hear a Japanese man who spoke with a squeaky, high-pitched voice? Yeah, me neither.

    Anthropologists sometimes can tell the race of a skeleton, in part, based on the shape of the skull. Different races and ethnicities tend to have different shaped sinus cavities, which affects the tone of voice.

    Dialects aside, I long had thought the different races tended to have their own distinct vocal sounds, and a character on the TV series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” convinced me I wasn’t imagining it.

    When someone’s done up in Klingon makeup, you can’t tell what’s makeup and what’s original equipment; lots of prosthetics and brown makeup. It could be an albino white guy or a black as coal Hausa, but on camera, they would be indistinguishable. And the “Klingons” have a stiff, formal manner of speech that would tend to obscure any ethnic dialect. Which leaves just one factor, or maybe two, to guess race from.

    It was years after the series premiered before I ever saw Michael Dorn, who plays the character ‘Worf,’ out of makeup. But I knew beyond a doubt from the very first episode that he was black. For one, Worf has brown eyes. I’ve never seen natural looking brown-tinted contact lenses, so I figured (correctly) that Dorn probably was brown-eyed. Then again, so is the majority of the human race. But it was the voice that sealed the deal. Not because he spoke in an identifiably black dialect, but because his tone of voice sounded like James Earl Jones and Sidney Poitier.

    The funny thing is that when he’s being Michael Dorn, his voice doesn’t have that same quality. Even though he’s a Texan, his normal speaking voice does not have a distinctive accent of any sort, and I’ve never heard him sounding “ethnic.” I would not pick him out of a “voice lineup” as possibly being black. But when he speaks as Worf, his voice is husky and sonorous and most definitely sounds black.

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