Men who pronounce their words less distinctly are perceived as more macho, or so the research of Kevin Heffernan suggests. Many previous studies have found a gender difference in how we articulate our words, with men tending to articulate less precisely than women. However Heffernan is the first linguist to show that some men articulate more precisely than other men, and that this appears to cause listeners to perceive them differently.
Heffernan recorded 8 radio DJs from XM Satellite Radio, a North American for-profit company that broadcasts over 170 stations. Between them the DJs covered 6 musical genres: classical, Country and Western, popular, hard rock, punk and heavy metal. He then asked university students (9 men and 6 women) to judge the DJs’ voices on 10 different attributes, such as how friendly they sounded or how technically competent the students thought they were. Statistical analyses were used to group attributes that received similar scores into 4 groups that Heffernan interpreted as indicating the DJs’ personality, regional accent, social class and masculinity. Masculinity correlated with the scores for machismo, self-confidence, composure and estimates of the DJs’ physical size.
Heffernan then measured four features of the DJs’ pronunciation, to see whether there was any correlation between precise articulation and the social attributes that the DJs had been judged to possess. One feature was how distinct from each other were pronunciations of the six vowels /i, e, æ, u, o, ɑ/, while two others concerned types of contrast in the length of different vowels: for example, the vowel in the word beat is usually longer than the vowel in bit, though the actual difference in length varies from one speaker to another. The fourth feature analysed was the pronunciation of the final consonant in the word with. In fast speech this sometimes sounds like a /d/ or a /t/, depending on the type of sound that follows. On each of these four measures, Heffernan found a significant correlation between the DJs’ articulation and the ratings they had been given for their perceived masculinity: those DJs judged as sounding more masculine produced phonetically less distinct speech.
There was little or no relation between the judgements of the DJs’ personality or social class and the precision of their articulation. Interestingly, though, judgements of their regional accent also correlated to some extent with the clarity of their articulation. Perhaps this is because regional accent is sometimes associated with masculinity: Heffernan points out that Southern US accents, for example, have been associated in experiments with male-dominated institutions such as the American military.
Heffernan does not comment on the music that the DJs were associated with but, for the record, the DJ who received the highest scores on the masculinity group of attributes played heavy metal while the DJ with the lowest scores played classical music. However the conclusion of the paper relates not to the music but to the fact that precision in articulation can send subtle messages about the personal characteristics of the person who is speaking – in this case, about how macho the speaker is.
Kevin Heffernan (2010) Mumbling is macho: Phonetic distinctiveness in the speech of American Radio DJs. American Speech 85 (1): 67-90.
This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire