How Intonation Helps Transwomen Read as Female
A new study in the Journal of Voice has taken a look at the ways which intonation in the voice affects perceptions of gender in the listener.
“Intonation and gender perception: Applications for transgender speakers” began with groups of cismale, cisfemale, transmale, and transfemale participants. Each participant was recorded giving a thirty second verbal description of the Norman Rockwell painting The Waiting Room. The recordings were then played back (audio only) and volunteers were asked to rate both the gender and the gender quality of a given voice — that is, a sliding scale from Masculine Male to Feminine Female, with a spectrum between.
The transwomen did not perform well in this study, if their intent was to be read as their true gender and not their assigned gender; only four of the fourteen transwomen were perceived as female, while another six were perceived as “ambiguous” (i.e. in the range of “feminine male” to “masculine female”). On the other hand, five of the six transmen were perceived as male, and the sixth was ambiguous [not surprising considering the vocal deepening afforded by testosterone HRT].
So, what did the successfully passing transwomen do that the others did not? A lot of it has to do with upward vs. downward intonation. The common perception is that women use more upward intonation (or “upspeak”) and so increasing upward intonation has been a common focus of gender speech therapy. This study, however, found that it wasn’t so much the level of upward intonation as it was downward intonation that was the tell. The MtF group that was perceived as male “use almost twice as many utterances with downward intonation as any other group,” even the cismale group.
The authors note that overall, the effects that intonation have on gender perception are probably “limited.” Still, it’s an interesting result, and something we transwomen working on our voices ought to keep in mind. Keep those voices up, ladies!