Rethinking the frequency code: a meta-analytic review of the role of acoustic body size in communicative phenomena

Bodo Winter, Grace Eunhae Oh, Iris Hübscher, Kaori Idemaru, Lucien Brown, Pilar Prieto, Sven Grawunder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Downloads (Pure)


The widely cited frequency code hypothesis attempts to explain a diverse range of communicative phenomena through the acoustic projection of body size. The set of phenomena includes size sound symbolism (using /i/ to signal smallness in words such as teeny), intonational phonology (using rising contours to signal questions) and the indexing of social relations via vocal modulation, such as lowering one's voice pitch to signal dominance. Among other things, the frequency code is commonly interpreted to suggest that polite speech should be universally signalled via high pitch owing to the association of high pitch with small size and submissiveness. We present a cross-cultural meta-analysis of polite speech of 101 speakers from seven different languages. While we find evidence for cross-cultural variation, voice pitch is on average lower when speakers speak politely, contrary to what the frequency code predicts. We interpret our findings in the light of the fact that pitch has a multiplicity of possible communicative meanings. Cultural and contextual variation determines which specific meanings become manifest in a specific interactional context. We use the evidence from our meta-analysis to propose an updated view of the frequency code hypothesis that is based on the existence of many-to-many mappings between speech acoustics and communicative interpretations.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Voice modulation: from origin and mechanism to social impact (Part I)’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20200400
Number of pages13
JournalRoyal Society of London. Proceedings B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1840
Early online date1 Nov 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Nov 2021


  • pitch
  • politeness
  • sound symbolism
  • prosody
  • intonation
  • vocal dominance


Dive into the research topics of 'Rethinking the frequency code: a meta-analytic review of the role of acoustic body size in communicative phenomena'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this