Voice quality through both lenses

3d-glassesI spend a great deal of time thinking about (and talking about – sorry friends!) voice quality – the component of speech that is determined not so much by what our mouths are doing, but by the configuration of our vocal folds and rate of air flowing from the lungs. (If you’re interested, the components of speech is something I’ve blogged about before.) But… what is voice quality, exactly? 

Linguist John Laver described voice quality as the ‘auditory colour’ of speech. I like this metaphor. It does well to highlight that, much like our visual perception of colour, our auditory perception of voice is inherently subjective. The way a colour ‘looks’ depends not just on the light source but also on the viewers’ physiological/psychological response to the stimulus. Similarly, the way a voice ‘sounds’ depends not just on who is speaking but also on who is listening. Like colour, we can make objective measurements of voice quality. And, like colour, objective measurements inevitably fall some way short of capturing the essence of how a voice actually sounds.

The subjective nature of voice quality is on full display when we try to describe voices (thin, rich, rough, hollow, penetrating, plummy, brittle…). My own descriptions of voices have been shaped, explicitly and intentionally, by my speech pathology training. Whole classes were dedicated to teaching precisely what is meant by ‘rough’, ‘strained’, ‘breathy’, and so on. My accuracy was assessed: to what extent is roughness present in this person’s voice? Answers that were sufficiently similar to our educator’s were rewarded a pass. The purpose? To arm us with a shared vocabulary to talk about voice quality with our colleagues. In many ways, it worked.

But exposure to this highly structured system of describing voice quality had other consequences. I walked out of my training naively believing that it is possible to standardise the perception voice quality. It isn’t. I also believed there to be a superior set of words, to which I was now privy, for describing voice qualities. There isn’t; every discipline has their own vocabulary and definitions. Plus, lay descriptions of voice qualities can be surprisingly insightful. This is not to say that these are beliefs my educators wanted me to develop, necessarily, but ones I developed nonetheless. I was also blind to the fact that my newly acquired vocabulary was incomplete; it comprised only of words for qualities deemed problematic or undesirable – that is, qualities that speech pathologists believe to signal or lead to poor vocal health. The unavoidable inference was that if it’s got a name, it must be bad. As a result, I didn’t know how to talk about ‘normal’, non-pathological variation.

Fast forward a few years and I’m in the thick of a PhD on voice quality, but have taken a sideways step away from speech pathology into the discipline of phonetics. While speech pathologists are concerned with identifying and remediating voice problems, phoneticians study the variation that is routinely found in naturalistic speech; the way that the sound of a speaker’s voice varies from moment to moment, and the way that voices vary across individuals and communities. The ideological standpoints of the two disciplines need not clash, but often do. Much of the speech pathology vocabulary overlaps with the phonetics vocabulary, some of it seems the same on the surface but isn’t, and some words are entirely discipline-specific. Where there are differences – especially when the two disciplines use different words to point to the same concept (e.g. ‘creaky voice’ vs. ‘glottal fry’ – more on this to come…) – the decision to use one term over another feels heavy with disciplinary allegiance and, by extension, loaded with meaning. Speech pathology terms are loaded with implications of pathological abnormality; phonetic terms are not. Belonging now to both disciplines, it’s my task to examine voice quality through both lenses, finding common ground, a shared meaning, and to encourage readers of my research to do the same. It’s a difficult but I hope worthwhile endeavour.

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