Rethinking the frequency code: A meta-analytic review of the role of acoustic body size in communicative phenomena

Bodo Winter, Grace Eunhae Oh, Iris Hübscher, Kaori Idemaru, Lucien Brown, Pilar Prieto, Sven Grawunder

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The widely cited frequency code hypothesis attempts to explain a diverse range of communicative phenomena through the acoustic projection of body size. The set of phenomena includes size sound symbolism (using /i/ to signal smallness in words such as teeny), intonational phonology (using rising contours to signal questions), and the indexing of social relations via vocal modulation, such as lowering one’s voice pitch to signal dominance. Among other things, the frequency code is commonly interpreted to suggest that polite speech should be universally signaled via high pitch due to the association of high pitch with small size and submissiveness. We present a cross-cultural meta-analysis of polite speech of 101 speakers from 7 different languages. While we find evidence for cross-cultural variation, voice pitch is on average lower when speakers speak politely, contrary to what the frequency code predicts. We interpret our findings in light of the fact that pitch has a multiplicity of possible communicative meanings. Cultural and contextual variation determines which specific meanings become manifest in a specific interactional context. We use the evidence from our meta-analysis to propose an updated view of the frequency code hypothesis that is based on the existence of many-to-many mappings between speech acoustics and communicative interpretations.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1840
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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