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What Makes Your Voice Uniquely Yours?

What is it that makes your voice uniquely yours? Dozens upon dozens of people can recognize your voice. They can even recognize you over the phone — sometimes even if you have a cold! What makes your voice yours can be described as a function of the shape and size of the breathing/speech tube we call “the vocal tract.”

Like most people who speak a “spoken” language (i.e. not a sign language), I “speak” by coordinating muscles in my chest, throat, and mouth. The tongue, lips, and larynx all provide me with the muscular system to say things. Lots of things. If I say things right, people like me, I get others to help me, and sometimes I even get free chocolate. If I say things wrong, however…

How do we form words? Each vocal articulation that results in a sound or word or “tone of voice” is a poorly understood set of neural impulses sent to muscles (such as the styloglossus at the base of the tongue). fMRI and “brain scans” are tools that have helped us slowly cast light on the neurology of articulatory phonetics. It turns out that we can think of language change as small changes in timing and strength of neural impulses, motivated by changes in how people relate to one another . A timing difference there, copied by generations of friends and foes, converted Latin ‘aqua’ into Spanish ‘agua’; Old English ‘myrgð’ into English ‘mirth’.

It turns out that these small changes in the timing of various vocal tract muscles are caused by more than random chance. We put meaning into our word choices, or choice of tone, or funny little modifications on words. The phrases “What’s up brother?” and “What’s up bruh?” are not the same thing! Our patterned word choices say something about who we are, what community we belong to (or wish to), and what we do for a living. We recognize that people “self-organize” into goal-oriented speech communities.

A dialect can describe the “linguistic and cultural uniqueness” of a community made up of people who have lived and worked together for generations. They had to use language to achieve their goals such as making food, arguing about land use, finding a lifemate, seeking fortune. In working together (and sometimes fighting) for generations, unique ways of speaking evolved.

Scientifically, what is a dialect? The variables of dialect exist in the realms of “word choice”, “syntax”, “intonation,” “turns-of-phrase”, “pronunciation”, even “dress” and “gesture.” If you take dialect and you distill it down to some sort of simpler symbolic representation of the “intentions” in speech, striping out the “pronunciation” and “intonation” and other articulatory features that define dialect, you would have something called “writing.” Writing can be used to mask a lot of what people call dialect –but not everything. If you speak, read and write American English fluently, you can read Scottish news easier than you can understand it when spoken. But there will be “funny” words, odd place names, turns of phrase…

Dialect is more than just “accent”. Dialect can be thought of as a “tighter” agreement between speakers on the meaning and use of words than the group called “language”. Dialect is a result of cooperation, hard work, and big dreams. The social and environmental circumstances under which we learn our languages cause the fossilization of the “meanings” of words in grammar. People use language to put images and ideas in their heads. When you know people better, at the same dialect level, sharing ideas and images is easier.

How do words get their fixed meaning? That depends on the communicative needs of the community. For example, 2000 years ago hardy Britons and Vikings decided that “starboard” and “laderboard” were good enough terms to get the job done. Later, some more Latin-friendly folks decided that “port” is better than “laderboard.” The survival-oriented sailor learned quickly. Language, is a survival tool and dialects represent team-specific sets of these tools.

When we speak in high-value settings we make careful word choices. Each choice is made to achieve some communicative goal. When folks are aligned on goals, word meanings –and pronunciations– crystalize. That’s why the worlds of sailing, physics, music, dance, war, etc. all have technical terms and ideas that seem hard to learn at first. Those words, grammar, and pronunciations evolved and survived because they helped community members get the job done. The outcome of success is specialized communication.

Businesses and academic disciplines exist through time like generations of people. They too have high-value language that members must learn to use well in order to get the job done. Even today, Apple users talk differently than Android users. Tech support centers know this, so they staff differently because Apple and Android have their own speech communities, dialects. Each company and industry has its technical terms, key phrases, ways of speaking that evolved organically to get engineers, marketers, salespeople, customers on the same page. 

So what makes your voice, your voice?  Your voice is a representation of where you have been and where you want to go. This can be thought of in two ways: the genetic and the memetic. Your capacity to speak a language -the specific articulations and underlying symbolisms you CAN and do give thoughts is made possible by your genes.

Memes (in the Dawkins sense)  are the sum total of specific articulations and language patterns that make your ideas possible: your choice of words, your choice of metaphors represents thousands if not tens of thousands of years of the human story. You use the genetic and memetic language palate to convey meaning and extract meaning from the world around you.

In sum, your voice is everything that has ever been in human history, and everything that you want to be.

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