Juan David Leongómez, Jakub Binter, Lydie Kubicová, Petra Stolařová, Kateřina Klapilová, Jan Havlíček, S. Craig Roberts (2014)
Speakers modulate their voice when talking to infants, but we know little about subtle variation in acoustic parameters during speech in adult social interactions. Because tests of perception of such variation are hampered by listeners’ understanding of semantic content, studies often confine speech to enunciation of standard sentences, restricting ecological validity. Furthermore, apparent paralinguistic modulation in one language may be underpinned by specific parameters of that language. Here we circumvent these problems by recording speech directed to attractive or unattractive potential partners or competitors, and testing responses to these recordings by naive listeners, across both a Germanic (English) and a Slavic (Czech) language. Analysis of acoustic parameters indicates that men’s voices varied F0 most in speech towards potential attractive versus unattractive mates, while modulation of women’s F0 variability was more sensitive to competitors, with higher variability when those competitors were relatively attractive. There was striking similarity in patterns of social context-dependent F0 variation across the two model languages, with both men’s and women’s voices varying most when responding to attractive individuals. Men’s minimum pitch was lower when responding to attractive than unattractive women. For vocal modulation to be effective, however, it must be sufficiently detectable to promote proceptivity towards the speaker. We showed that speech directed towards attractive individuals was preferred by naive listeners of either language over speech by the same speaker to unattractive individuals, even when voices were stripped of several acoustic properties by low-pass filtering, which renders speech unintelligible. Our results suggest that modulating F0 may be a critical parameter in human courtship, independently of semantic content.