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"It's not what you said, it's how you said it": an empirical approach to human voice as the outward expression of inner character

Carlsberg Foundation Young Researcher Fellowships


It is often said that the eyes are a window onto the human soul. Just as suggestive of inner states and traits as the eyes, however, is the human voice. Changes in the speaker's voice, and differences between speakers, can signal a wide range of different meanings (to do e.g. with attractiveness, honesty, warmth, etc.). In our project, we adopt a highly interdisciplinary approach to explore two broader areas of interest: 1. positive and negative trait assessment of vocal variation (vocal traits of villains and heroes; vocal elements of creepiness; vocal variation and crisis; vocal variation in relating positive and negative news); and 2. sociobiologically conditioned vocal variation (effects of alcohol and smoking on voice quality; vocal stereotypes related to alcohol and smoking).


This project expands our knowledge of how the human voice can signal positive and negative characteristics in its owner. While work in sociolinguistics and social psychology has documented some such signalling potentials of vocal variation (e.g., attractiveness, honesty), the findings available within each relevant discipline do not, as a rule, look out to the methodological tools and findings on the same or similar topic in other disciplines. Our understanding of the signalling potentials of the human voice will thus always be suboptimal unless a highly interdisciplinary approach is employed. This is where this project comes in. We very much aim to bridge gaps between the different groups of experts on vocal variation. The output of the project has both theoretical and societal relevance.


We will target specific research questions relating to the two broader areas specified above. A combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches will be adopted. The data will primarily consist of four subsets: 1. existing film corpora; 2. existing political speeches; 3. newly collected articulatory and acoustic data; 4. newly collected attitudinal data. An important part of the project is establishing an interdisciplinary lab at the Department of English, Aarhus University. We aim to establish a sustainable and permanent environment for interdisciplinary and international voice research with many applications in the long run. Apart from bringing together existing expertise within the department's different divisions, we also aim to bring a range of international experts together.


Voice-based communication pervades our lives. Any sector or field concerned with effective verbal communication should be interested in our results, and any recipient of such verbal communications should be interested in their potential impact.