Perceptual and acoustic gender differences in the speech of 4 1/2 - 5 1/2 year old children.

Nairn, Moray (1997). Perceptual and acoustic gender differences in the speech of 4 1/2 - 5 1/2 year old children. PhD thesis The Open University.



The linguistic factors which identify a speaker as being either male or female are reasonably well understood and documented when we are considering adult speakers. Many of these factors become apparent at puberty when the sexes diverge along predictable anatomical and physiological paths. It might be expected, therefore, that prepubertal children should appear relatively undifferentiated in terms of gender and that young boys' and girls' speech should be sexually homogenous.

This study has confirmed, however, that adult listeners can correctly identify the sex of a prepubertal child from samples of speech. Results of the present study yielded correct identification rates which varied between 66% (using isolated vowels as the sample) and 76% (using sentences as the sample) - all of these rates were significantly greater than chance. Girls were shown to be better identified by listeners than boys and female listeners tended to be more accurate at identifying gender than male listeners.

During the acoustic phase of the study, a number of parameters were selected for measurement which were regarded as likely to be involved in the gender-identification process. Overall, there was a surprisingly large number of negative results, with only a very few parameters yielding significantly sex-different outcomes. No differences were found in Fo between the sexes and only 5 out of 18 comparisons of formant frequency showed significant differences. An investigation into vocal breathiness indicated that, on the basis of this parameter, children could be assigned into perceptual groupings ('most / least male-like') better than into biological sex groupings ('boy / girl'). The conclusion reached is that listeners may use different acoustic cues to identify children's sex from speech than adult's sex, alternatively or additionally, they may be able to focus their perceptive skills more finely on the small acoustic inequalities that exist.

The concept of gender-specific speech is discussed in a general commentary of the various influences exerted in the formation of gendered-identities.

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