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Vol. 40, No. 1, 1983
Issue release date: 1983
Phonetica 1983;40:1–18

Cross-Language Use of Pitch: An Ethological View

Ohala J.J.
Phonology Laboratory, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, Calif., USA

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Certain signaling functions of the pitch of voice are remarkably similar across languages and cultures: (1) high or rising pitch to mark questions, low or falling pitch to mark nonquestions; (2) high pitch to signal politeness, low pitch to signal assertiveness; (3) in ‘sound symbolic’ vocabulary, high tone used with words connoting smallness or diminutive, low tone with words connoting largeness. These patterns can be explained by the assumption that human vocal communication exploits the ‘frequency code’, a cross-species association of high pitch vocalizations with smallness (of the vocalizer), lack of threat, and of low pitch vocalizations with the vocalizer’s largeness and threatening intent.

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