voice and race recognition

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Tue Dec 28 17:45:49 UTC 2010

If there's a physiological basis for the different voice quality of
American Blacks, I can easily believe that it's particularly associated
with men, because when I said that there are Blacks who sound exactly
like Whites, I was thinking about particular Black women, not men.

On the other hand, Andre Cooper, who's a phonetician and Black and a big opera
fan, once told me that no matter how much Black woman are trained as opera
singers, there's always something distinctive about their voice quality
(although obviously we're dealing with a pretty small sample here).

(incidentally, when I say that Obama is obviously Black, I am NOT referring to
phonetic features like his pronunciation of ay (which is no different than
Southern Whites)--I was referring to voice quality.

And there are definitely Black men who can sound completely convincingly
White if they try. John Baugh is very good at this, I don't think that I would
be able to identity him as Black if he put it on, it's much less obvious
than e.g. Obama. And Eddie Murphy can put on a very convincing White voice.

I have a strong feeling that regardless of possible physiological differences,
there is a significant sociopsychological aspect to this. I say this because
it's clear to me at least that Blacks are much better at sounding 100% White
than Whites are at sounding 100% Black.

Quoting Johanna Rubba <jrubba at calpoly.edu>:

> As to identifying African Americans by their speech, I heard once
> that the structure of most AA men's larynx is different from that of
> whites, and this was responsible, first of all, for a deeper voice in
> many cases, and second of all, for that elusive quality that John
> refers to. I immediately pegged this as incredibly racist, but
> apparently, according to someone I respected, it was legitimate
> science. This was a long time ago. and I don't remember the details.
> This could account for a difference between black men and women.
> I'm not sure I'd recognize that Barack Obama was (half) AA merely by
> his voice. I certainly have mistaken black speakers for white any
> number of times. I just listened to some clips of his speeches on
> YouTube and I do hear the voice quality I think John is talking
> about. He monophthongizes his /ai/'s sometimes, but also does
> Canadian raising on them. I don't detect any of the other cues that
> usually flag an AA voice for me (e.g., glottal stop at the end of
> words that end in /t/).
> You've probably heard of John Baugh's personal experiment of calling
> about apartments for rent, sometimes using AA English, and sometimes
> standard English. He gets far more callbacks when using his "white"
> voice.
> I'm a regular NPR listener and I often speculate on both the
> ethnicity and the personal appearance of their speakers. There are
> photos of all of the speakers (and some of the people you don't hear,
> like Kee Malesky and Doug Berman) on the NPR website, and I have
> checked several of the speakers that I suspected were AA. I was right
> about Korva Coleman, Cheryl Corely, Audie Cornish, Alison Keyes, and
> Juan Williams, but wrong about Ann Taylor, Barbara Bradley Hagerty,
> and Paul Brown. In general, most of the people I've checked don't
> look at all like I would have expected. Terri Gross and the Magliozzi
> brothers look pretty much like what I would have expected, but others
> do not look at all like I expected. Interestingly, I had pegged Steve
> Innskeep as being attractive, and got pretty close to his facial type.
> A cool little experiment. Try it sometime!
> Dr. Johanna Rubba, Ph. D.
> Professor, Linguistics
> Linguistics Minor Advisor
> English Dept.
> Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
> San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
> Ofc. tel. : 805-756-2184
> Dept. tel.: 805-756-2596
> Dept. fax: 805-756-6374
> E-mail: jrubba at calpoly.edu
> URL: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba

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