In The Beginning was the Familiar Voice – Diana Sidtis (New York University)

April 6, 2012 all-day

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Hearing and sound, compared with vision, are latecomers and second cousins in cultural and scientific history. Still today, voice scientists are scattered across many disciplines and much of vocal function remains elusive. In modern linguistics, speech sounds have received more attention than voice, and in neuropsychology, voices have only recently begun to catch up with faces. Yet vocalization likely played a major role in biological evolution, appearing long before speech, and contributing crucially to survival and social behaviors in numerous species. Paralinguistic communication by voice, an inborn ability arising from this evolutionary trajectory, has flowered to a prodigious competence in humans. Voice information is multiplex, signaling affective, attitudinal, linguistic, pragmatic, physiological and psychological characteristics, as well as personal identity. The cues for this long list of characteristics likewise constitute a very large repertory of auditory-acoustic, physiological, perceptual, and speech-like parameters. This many-to-many relationship between characteristics signaled in the voice and the cues to them presents a great challenge to voice research. Further, because of important differences between familiar and unfamiliar voices, the role of the listener is key. Studies of persons with focal brain damage indicate that perception of unfamiliar and recognition of familiar voices are independent and unordered cerebral abilities. These and related findings lead to a model of voice perception that posits an interplay between featural analysis and pattern recognition. From this perspective, the personally familiar voice, viewed as a complex auditory pattern for which idiosyncratic featural attributes arise adventitiously, is preeminent in evolution and in human communication.
Diana Sidtis (formerly Van Lancker) is Professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at New York University and performs research at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research. An experienced clinician, her publications include numerous scholarly articles and book chapters.

Center for Language and Speech Processing