The Frequency Code
Since I was a child, I unconsciously decided that I should not talk like that
Talking like this seemed more intelligent, self-confident
Talking like that seemed frivolous, stupid
“Your voice is that of a hen, a goose”
What do animals have to do with any of this? I wondered …
And this led me on a journey into the specificity of my jaw, of my vocal cords, of my ears, of my tongue.
Since animals have been speaking long before us, it is well known that the main categories of phonemes used in languages are the result of the evolutionary adaptation of the human articulatory system to the auditory capabilities already developed in each vertebrate to distinguish events from their sound.
I am filling my mouth with scientific information and, without thinking about it, I have used…bass frequencies.
Since animal hearing was already specialized in the ability to deduce types of events from noises when language emerged (between two million and 50000 years ago), it could only adapt to the hierarchy of relevance of the already existing acoustic distinctions, organizing the system of articulatory differentiations accordingly.
Something makes me think that what I just described lacks the same credibility as before and that your ears would be better off in the company of a voice other than mine. Did you think so too?
In any case, what is it, if not articulate language, that has made us believe for centuries that we are the most intelligent of beasts on this planet?
We make a glaring mistake: we equate representation with language and are firmly convinced that we are the only ones in possession of one, but this is not the case, even non-human life forms have a representation of the world.
There is one thing upon which this representation is shaped… and this is pitch.
We know that the correlations acute: grave = small: large and acute: grave = light: dark ultimately depend on physical properties of sound and in particular on the fact that the wavelength of high notes is shorter than that of low notes, so that on average smaller bodies are needed to produce them - canaries, cats, whistles - than for low notes - owls, lions, trombones.
Eugène S. Morton showed that the correlation acute: grave = small: large is used in animal communication.
Studying intraspecific encounters in 56 species of birds and mammals, he saw that individuals tend to emphasize their own size or smallness, by means of grave or high-pitched sounds, to communicate their dominant or subordinate role. Sound, and in particular vocal intonation, plays an important role in conflict resolution by manipulating size perception. According to Morton, in a potentially hostile situation, dominant animals resort to harsh, relatively low frequency sounds, while less dominant animals use higher frequency sounds designed to indicate acquiescence and cordiality. In theory, an animal that hears a low-frequency voice, song or noise interprets it as coming from a larger animal and submits accordingly.
Phonetician John Ohala was intrigued by Morton's study of the relationship between vocal tone, size projection and conflict resolution and tried to find out if the same dynamic could be observed in humans. In 1984, he published an article in which he outlined what he described as the 'frequency code', an innately programmed system in humans that associates low-frequency, low-pitched voices with larger size and dominance, and high-frequency, high-pitched voices with smaller size and less dominance. In other words, humans are evolutionarily inclined to associate a lower pitch with aggression and confidence in their dominant role, and a higher pitch with weakness.
Thinking back to the question I asked earlier...this is about the phonosymbolism of size
... and nothing more.