November 13, 2007

Mailbag: F0 in Japanese vs. English

Email responding to the recent posts on pitch in Japanese and English ("The perils of mixing romance with language learning", 11/9/2007;"Nationality, gender and pitch", 11/12/2007) provides some additional support for the idea that there are really some cultural differences in this area. Most of the evidence is anecdotal (from non-Japanese speakers) or subjective (from a Japanese speaker), but there is also a reference to some experimental evidence.

Lindsay wrote:

One thing that seems not to have been mentioned is pitch difference when speaking different languages. I recall clearly noticing that the recorded announcements (female voice) on a bus from Narita airport to Chiba were noticeably different in pitch between the Japanese version and English Version. The English sounded "normal" but the Japanese sounded artificially high pitched.

I have also noticed another effect with an airport announcement at Heathrow where a flight to Tokyo was delayed by a late passenger. They called in English a couple of times, then they called in Japanese and finally they called again in Japanese, but this time sounding much more "angry" and with a definite drop in the pitch of the announcer's voice.

Grace write:

I've been reading with interest the recent posts about pitch in Japanese and I just wanted to chime in with my own experience. I, too, speak higher in Japanese than in English. I don't want to, but while I have managed to train myself out of using many other female speech patterns, I still automatically pitch my voice higher when speaking Japanese, regardless of who I'm speaking to or what the situation is. It's just what feels "right".

Melanie wrote:

This is only anecdotal evidence, but when I was in Japan, often I would be having a conversation with a Japanese woman who would be speaking at a "normal" pitch. Then she would get a phone call and answer the phone in a very artificial-sounding (and maybe nasalized?) high pitch, speak in that pitch for the duration of the call, and then continue her conversation with me in a "normal" pitch. I'd always assumed that it was a marker for formal speech for females, but I'd trust a native speaker judgment over my own. This is so prominent I can't believe there hasn't been work on it.

And Axel wrote:

I've been following with interest the posts on Language Log concerning the pitch employed by female gendered (this is obviously not a queestion about sex) Japanese speakers. In fact, this is an area where I myself have done some reading and today I finally managed to re-find a reference that I don't think have appeared in your posts yet.

The source (Ohara. “Japanese Pitch from a Sociolinguistic Point of View.”女性語の世界. (The World of Women’s Language) Ed. Ide, Sachico. Tokyo: Meiji Shoin, 1997) is unfortunately unavailable to me, but I can quote a summary of the work from a term paper in Japanese linguistics I found some years ago.

Traditional view about phonological differences between the speech of men and women is that this is the result of the natural difference between male and female vocal tract. However, a research done by Ohara[iii] disproves this idea.

In this experiment, Ohara asked twelve subjects, six men and six women, to produce speech in four different contexts: Japanese conversation, Japanese reading, English conversation, and English reading. All subjects were native speakers of Japanese. The result was that female subjects clearly employed higher pitch in conversation than in reading for both languages, and higher pitch in Japanese than in English. On the other hand, the recordings of men were scattered so that no particular patterns could be observed, although the pitches of the men were lower than that of women’s in all four contexts. If physiological reasons can solely account for the difference of pitch found in men and women’s speech, then the female subjects should not have employed different pitches for Japanese and English when the male subjects did not. Physiological difference between the sexes does explain the fact that the women spoke with a higher pitch than the men in all four contexts, but it is undoubtedly insufficient to account for the rest of the findings; there seems to be cultural factors involved. In order to further explore the problem, Ohara made a second experiment concerning attitudes toward different pitches.

In the second experiment, Ohara asked two female subjects to utter three greeting words among which there was no difference in politeness level. Ohara then altered each of the six recordings into three different pitches, producing eighteen different pitches in total. Male and female subjects were then asked to assess the pitches, rating the eighteen recordings by terms that define impressions about personal characteristics such as hospitable, smart, or rude. The result showed that both men and women associated lower pitch with characteristics such as “stubbornness,” “selfishness,” and “strength”, and higher pitch with “cuteness,” “politeness,” and “kindness.” This experiment not only proves that personal characteristics are considered closely related to pitch but also that for a woman, higher pitch is generally more desirable than lower pitch (if we agree that “kindness” or “politeness” is more desirable than characteristics like “selfishness”.) The fact that the physiologically more childlike higher pitch is considered more desirable proves the high valuation of young age in Japanese culture. However, Ohara’s experiment did not include assessment of male pitches; we do not know what kind of men’s pitch would be considered more desirable.

Axel didn't say who the author of that term paper was.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 13, 2007 09:18 AM